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Mills v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

July 11, 2019

DAVID LAMAR MILLS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          WALLACE CAPEL, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Dave Lamar Mills (“Mills” or “Plaintiff”) filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on June 18, 2015. R. 29. He also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on June 19, 2015. R. 29. In both applications, he alleged disability beginning July 14, 2012.[2] R. 29. Both applications were denied at the initial administrative level on October 5, 2015. R. 29. Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 19, 2017. R. 29. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 24, 2017. R. 39. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 16, 2018. R. 1- 4. The ALJ's decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The case is now before the Court for review of that decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). It was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 for all pretrial proceedings and entry of any orders or recommendations as may be appropriate. Doc. 18. Based on a review of the record and the briefs of the parties, the undersigned recommends that the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. The Court's sole function is to determine whether the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). “The Social Security Act mandates that ‘findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.'” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §405(g)). Thus, this Court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla - i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971)); Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the court would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact and even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The Court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], ” but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239).

         The Court will also reverse a Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton v. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053).

         III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         The Social Security Act's general disability insurance benefits program (“DIB”) provides income to individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature retirement, provided they are both insured and disabled, regardless of indigence. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Social Security Act's Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) is a separate and distinct program. SSI is a general public assistance measure providing an additional resource to the aged, blind, and disabled to assure that their income does not fall below the poverty line. Eligibility for SSI is based on proof of indigence and disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). However, despite the fact they are separate programs, the law and regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are identical; therefore, claims for DIB and SSI are treated identically for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n.1 (11th Cir. 1986).

         Applicants under DIB and SSI must prove “disability” within the meaning of the Social Security Act, which defines disability in virtually identical language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable to do the following:

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 12 months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner of Social Security uses a five-step, sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant is entitled to benefits:

(1) Is the person currently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment(s) meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in Listing of Impairments in Appendix I of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy? McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2010). An affirmative answer to any question leads either to the next question or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question except Step 3 leads to a determination of not disabled. McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d at 1030; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f).

         The burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). Claimants establish a prima facie case of qualifying for disability once they meet the burden of proof from Step 1 through Step 4. At Step 5, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id.

         To perform Steps 4 and 5, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). Id. at 1238-39. RFC is what the claimant is still able to do despite his impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It also can contain both exertional and non-exertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At Step 5, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if there are jobs available in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To do this, the ALJ can either use the Medical Vocational Guidelines (“grids”) or hear testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 1239-40.

         The grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or light work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. Each factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an individual. Id. at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorily-required finding of “disabled” or “not disabled.” Id.

         IV. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff was twenty-nine on the alleged date of disability onset. R. 38. Plaintiff has a high school education. R. 38. Following the administrative hearing and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found at Step 1 that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 14, 2012, the alleged date of onset. R. 31. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), affective disorder, degenerative disc disease, and residual damage to right arm after lymphoma removal. R. 32. However, at Step 3, in a detailed analysis of Plaintiff's limitations, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in Subpart P of Appendix 1, 20 C.F.R. Part 404. R. 32-33. The ALJ articulated Plaintiff's RFC as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work … except the claimant can occasionally handle objects and write with the right hand. The claimant is limited to low stress work, defined by occasional decision making required.

         R. 33. In Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has past relevant work as a case aid (light, semiskilled work) and a stock clerk (heavy, semiskilled work). R. 38. The ALJ next concluded in Step Five that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” R. 38. After consulting with a VE at the hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work. R. 38. Based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ then identified the following representative occupations that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC: public area attendant, children's ...


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