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Ellis v. Social Security Administration

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

April 23, 2019

JONATHAN ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION[1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Jonathan Ellis, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Ellis timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 1383(c)(3). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be reversed and remanded.

         I. Procedural History

         Ellis has a high school education. (Tr. at 161). His past work includes operating a laser machine at a metal fabrication company, cooking in restaurants, and detailing cars. (id. at 26, 177). In his application for SSI, he alleged he became disabled on November 1, 2014, as a result of back pain and numbness in his arm. (Id. at 40). After his claim was denied, Ellis requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 57). Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Ellis' claim. (Id. at 21-27). Ellis was 54 years old when the ALJ issued her decision. (Id. at 27, 40). After the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision (id. at 1-4), that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1251 (N.D. Ala. 2001 (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). Thereafter, Ellis commenced this action. (Doc. 1).

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To establish eligibility for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to engage in 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 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Social Security Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

         First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Ellis has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 14, 2015, the date of his application for SSI. (Tr. at 23).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined Ellis has the following severe impairments: (1) cervical stenosis and spondylosis with radiculopathy and (2) neuropathy. (Tr. at 23).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the “Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Ellis does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 23-24).

         If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare her assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (e). If the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined Ellis has the RFC to perform light work[2] with the following limitations: he can only frequently reach (including overhead), push and pull, handle, finger, and feel with both upper extremities; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; and occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Tr. at 24-26). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Ellis is unable to perform his past relevant work. (Id. at 26).

         If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). At the fifth step, considering Ellis' age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as those of laundry folder, hand packager, and small parts assembler, that Ellis can perform. (Tr. at 27). Therefore, the ALJ concluded Ellis is not disabled. (Id.).

         III. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district 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) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted ...


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