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Stanford v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2019

SHELLY RENEE STANFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Shelly Renee Stanford, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Stanford timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         Ms. Stanford was fifty-three years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. (Tr. at 357.) She has a high school education and has completed two years of college. (Tr. at 362.) Her past work experiences include employment as a property manager, short order cook, dietary aide, and packager. (Tr. at 168, 363.) Ms. Stanford claims that she became disabled on May 30, 2014, due to a knee injury, obesity, depression, recurrent hernias, arthritis, a lower back injury, and a shoulder injury. (Tr. at 361.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for SSI or DIB. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent her from performing her past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Stanford met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Tr. at 20.) The ALJ further determined that Ms. Stanford has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Ms. Stanford's affective mood disorder, obesity, lumbar degenerative changes, paroxysmal atrial fibrillation status post permanent pacemaker, hernia repair, and post arthroscopy of left knee are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, the ALJ found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 21.) The ALJ determined that Ms. Stanford has the following RFC: she can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for 6 hours and stand/walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour day; occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never work at unprotected heights, around dangerous machinery, or on ladders, ramps, or stairs; perform only simple, unskilled work with an SVP of 2 or less; concentrate for 2-hour periods throughout an 8-hour day; work a 5-day workweek with customary breaks; and have only occasional contact with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors. (Tr. at 22.)

         According to the ALJ, Ms. Stanford is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. at 27.) She is an “individual closely approaching advanced age” and has “at least a high school education, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 28.) Considering Ms. Stanford's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Stanford can perform, such as a folder of laundry, a hand packager, and an assembler. (Tr. at 28.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Ms. Stanford “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 30, 2014, through the date of this decision.” (Tr. at 29.)

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 Fed.Appx. 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the proof preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Stanford alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for several reasons: (1) the ALJ erred in his credibility finding; (2) the ALJ erred in giving minimal weight to the July 2012 opinion of one-time consultative examining physician, Dr. Anil Dhuna, M.D.; and (3) the Appeals Council ...


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