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Battles v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

March 27, 2019

ANGELA BATTLES, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND DISMISSAL ORDER

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Angela Battles seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of an adverse, final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), regarding her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The undersigned carefully considered the record, and for the reasons expressed herein, AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.[1]

         LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish entitlement for a period of disability, the claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations define “disabled” as the “inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         In determining whether a claimant suffers a disability, the Commissioner, through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon the claimant on the first four steps of this five-step process; the Commissioner sustains the burden at step five, if the evaluation proceeds that far. Washington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018).

         In the first step, the claimant cannot be currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove the impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits [the] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” Id. at § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the evaluator must conclude the claimant is disabled if the impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.02. Id. at § 404.1520(d). If a claimant's impairment meets the applicable criteria at this step, that claimant's impairments would prevent any person from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1525, 416.920(a)(4)(iii). That is, a claimant who satisfies steps one and two qualifies automatically for disability benefits if the claimant suffers a listed impairment. See Williams v. Astrue, 416 Fed.Appx. 861, 862 (11th Cir. 2011) (“If, at the third step, [the claimant] proves that [an] impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, [the claimant] is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step where the claimant demonstrates an incapacity to meet the physical and mental demands of past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At this step, the evaluator must determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent performance of past relevant work, the evaluator will determine the claimant is not disabled. See id.

         If the claimant is successful at the preceding step, the fifth step shifts the burden to the Commissioner to provide evidence, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education and past work experience, that the claimant is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(g). If the claimant can perform other work, the evaluator will not find the claimant disabled. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the claimant cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         The court reviews the ALJ's “‛decision with deference to the factual findings and close scrutiny of the legal conclusions.'” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). The court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). Although the court must “scrutinize the record as a whole . . . to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence, ” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted), the court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). Nonetheless, substantial evidence exists even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found at step one that Battles met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Tr. 12). The ALJ further found Battles had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 8, 2015, the alleged onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Battles suffers the following severe impairments: affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Battles's impairment or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any impairment for presumptive disability listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 13).

         Next, the ALJ found that Battles exhibited the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with certain limitations.[2] (Tr. 15). At step four, the ALJ found Battles could perform her past relevant work as a cleanup worker and storage laborer/stocker. (Tr. 19).

         On December 1, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, which deems the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. 1). On January 31, 2018, Battles filed her complaint with the court seeking review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1).

         ANALYSIS

         In this appeal, Ms. Battles contends substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision. Specifically, she argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC calculation. Battles also asserts the ALJ improperly accorded little weight to the examining psychiatrist's opinion. Finally, Battle contends the Appeals Council erred in refusing to consider new evidence from Harriette Brown, M.A., and Dr. Fredric Feist and, had the Appeals Council considered this evidence, the ALJ's decision no longer rests upon substantial evidence. After consideration of the record and the ALJ's decision, the court finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination.

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's RFC Formulation

         “Residual functional capacity” represents “an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis.” SSR 96-8p. A “regular and continuing basis” corresponds to eight hours a day, for five days a week, or an equivalent work schedule. Id. The regulations define RFC as “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [the claimant's] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In formulating an RFC, the ALJ considers a claimant's “ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(4). The ALJ examines all relevant medical and other evidence, including “any statements about what [the claimant] can still do that have been provided by medical sources, ” as well as “descriptions and observations [provided by the claimant, family, neighbors, friends, or other persons] of [the claimant's] limitations. . ., including limitations that result from . . . symptoms such as pain.” 20 C.F.R. § ...


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