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Frost v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2019

WILLIAM FROST, 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 William Frost 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 his claim for 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 Frost had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of October 14, 2014[2], through the date of the ALJ's opinion, August 9, 2016. (Tr. 12). At step two, the ALJ found that Frost suffers the following severe impairments: scoliosis; lumbar facet arthropathy; gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), post-surgery; and hiatal hernia, post-surgery. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Frost'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 Frost exhibited the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) but with certain limitations.[3] (Tr. 14). At step four, the ALJ found that Frost could perform his past relevant work as a security guard. (Tr. 16).

         On June 21, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, which deems the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. 2). On August 25, 2017, Frost filed his complaint with the court seeking review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1).

         ANALYSIS

         In this appeal, Frost contends substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision. Specifically, he faults the ALJ for: (1) improperly finding that Frost could perform his past relevant work as a security guard; (2) failing to utilize the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to show a finding of disability; and (3) improperly according partial weight to the opinion of the treating physician. 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 Finding that Frost Could Perform His Past Relevant Work

         At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The review at this step involves the assessment of a claimant's residual functional capacity and requires consideration of the physical and mental demands of his former work. Id. To determine the physical and mental demands of a claimant's past work, an ALJ may rely on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) and the job descriptions set forth in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). See Simpson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 379 Fed.Appx. 948, 952-53 (11th Cir. 2010).

         In this regard, “the ALJ has the duty to fully investigate and make explicit findings as to the physical and mental demands of a claimant's past relevant work and to compare that with what the claimant h[im]self is capable of doing before [the ALJ] determines that [ ]he is able to perform h[is] past relevant work.” Nelms v. Bowen, 803 F.2d 1164 (11th Cir. 1986). However, at this step, the burden still falls upon the claimant to prove that he cannot do this past work either as performed or as it is generally performed in the national economy. Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567 (11th Cir. 1990)(citing Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1544 (11th Cir. 1988)).

         Frost alleges the ALJ improperly found that he could return to his past relevant work as a security guard because the DOT classifies the job as light work yet the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that Frost performed the job at a sedentary level. The Commissioner responded that the ALJ adequately considered the testimony of both Frost and the VE, and therefore substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Frost could perform his past relevant work.

         The ALJ relied on testimony from the VE concerning Frost's past work experience. (Tr. 73-77). The VE confirmed Frost performed his past relevant work as a security guard at the sedentary level. (Tr. 74). Furthermore, the VE identified the position in the DOT at § 372.667- 034. (Tr. 73). See 1991 WL 673100.[4] The VE further testified that a hypothetical individual with Frost's RFC could perform his past relevant work as he actually performed it and as generally performed in the national economy. (Tr. 75-76).

The court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Frost could still perform his past relevant work as a security guard. Frost contends the ALJ erroneously listed his security guard experience as past relevant work because he never performed all of the tasks listed in the DOT's description. (Doc. 12 at 10). However, it remains the claimant's burden to demonstrate he can no longer perform his past relevant work as he actually performed it, and he can no longer perform the work as performed in the general economy. Waldrop v. ...


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