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McKee v. Saul

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

July 23, 2019

ALESHIA P. McKEE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER[2]

          SUSAN RUSS WALKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Aleshia P. McKee commenced this action on March 19, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner denying her applications for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits. See Doc. 1; R 10-20. Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on May 28, 2015, and for SSI benefits on July 15, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of April 23, 2015, due to degenerative disc disease, cervical spinal stenosis, cervical spondylosis, and lumbar spondylosis. See R. 228. On May 26, 2017, Administrative Law Judge Ruth Ramsey (“the ALJ”) issued an adverse decision after holding a hearing on the plaintiff's applications.[3] See R. 10-20. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See R. 1-5.

         In the instant appeal, the plaintiff asks the court to reverse the Commissioner's adverse decision and award benefits or, in the alternative, to remand this cause to the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Docs. 1 at 2; 12 at 12. This case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); see also Docs. 7, 8. For the reasons stated herein, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         In addition, the plaintiff moves for an award of reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 241(d).[4] See Doc. 12 at 12. This motion is due to be denied.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This 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). 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 reviewing court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the [Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words, this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner's findings of fact de novo, even where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.

         While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         To qualify for SSI and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a 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), 416.905(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a “physical or mental impairment” that “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, 416.908.

         The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v), 416.920(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the Commissioner;
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to a formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The sequential analysis goes as follows:

Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.

Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING

         At the hearing before the ALJ on January 9, 2017, plaintiff testified that she is married with two adult children. Her 22-year-old daughter moved back home to help care for her. Plaintiff receives food stamps and Medicaid. Plaintiff's husband drove her to the hearing. She drives only occasionally herself, ten miles at a time at most if she needs to go to the post office. Plaintiff has two years of college and a licensed practical nurse (LPN) degree. She worked as an LPN for eight years. Prior to working as an LPN, she worked as a certified nursing assistant off and on from 1989 until 2007, when she obtained her LPN license. Other prior work included collections for a trash disposal company, [5] and work in a machine plant and a cotton mill. R. 42-45.

         Plaintiff testified that she is unable to work due to pain across her lower back that runs into her legs, frequent falling, and numbness and tingling in her hands. She takes multiple medications for pain and anxiety, and to help her sleep. Side effects from her medications include loss of appetite, dry mouth, sleepiness, dizziness, and nausea. She has been undergoing extensive physical therapy, but she testified that it has not helped. She was getting injections that did help, but because she could only get short-term relief from these, her doctor discontinued the injections until really needed. R. 45-47, 51.

         Plaintiff smokes five to six cigarettes per day, but is trying to quit. On a typical day, she wakes up, takes her medication, and tries to eat something. Her daughter cooks breakfast for her. Plaintiff spends most of her day lying down. She uses a heating pad or heated blanket. She tries to wash dishes but has to take frequent breaks to sit. She can sweep some, but cannot mop or vacuum. Her daughter does the grocery shopping. Plaintiff does not participate in any activities outside of the home because she falls so much. She falls sometimes once per month and at other times up to twice per week. This has occurred for about eight months. Her doctors attribute her falling to problems with her sacroiliac joints. R. 47-49.

         Plaintiff can lift a small laundry basket but it has to be up high. She cannot bend over to pick it up. She does not help care for her grandchildren other than to get them something from the refrigerator. Her daughter watches ...


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