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Jones v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2019

MARK ANTOINE JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Mark Antoine Jones (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his claim for a period of disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on this court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

         I. Proceedings Below

         Plaintiff filed his application for DIB and SSI on July 14, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of November 22, 2013. (R. 170-1). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the initial request for DIB on August 19, 2015. (R. 179). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. 229), and ALJ David L. Horton held the hearing on July 26, 2017. (R. 123). In his decision dated October 16, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of Sections 216(i), 223(d), or 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (R. 76). Because the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 16, 2018, which was the final decision of the Commissioner (R. 1-4), the Commissioner's decision is now a proper subject for this court's appellate review.

         II. Statement of Facts

         Plaintiff, who was born on February 5, 1973, was 42-years-old when he filed his request for DIB/SSI and 44 at the time of the ALJ's decision.[1] (R. 76, 171). Plaintiff completed the tenth grade and held two relevant jobs over fifteen years: poultry dressing worker and material handler. (R. 141). The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from borderline intellectual functioning, depression, degenerative disc disorder, and obesity. (R. 68).

         While Plaintiff has an extensive and diverse medical record that goes back to March 1998 (R. 765), the relevant facts relate to Plaintiff's history of intellectual disorders, which implicates Listing 12.05.[2] Plaintiff visited Dr. Storjohann for psychological testing on July 29, 2013, after a reference from his attorney. (R. 1281). Dr. Storjohann administered a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Fourth Edition exam (WAIS-IV) and a Wide Range Achievement Test: Fourth Edition exam (WRAT4). The WAIS-IV results indicated that Plaintiff has a full-scale IQ of 76, verbal comprehension skills at the first percentile, perceptual reasoning skills at the twenty-fifth percentile, working memory at the ninth percentile, and processing speed at the twenty-third percentile. (R. 1281). The WRAT4 exam resulted in an overall ability in the borderline range, and it detailed that Plaintiff is in the extremely low range for verbal comprehension skills, average range for perceptual reasoning skills, and the low average range for working memory and processing speed. (R. 1281-2).

         Plaintiff first visited Cherokee Etowah DeKalb Mental Health Center (“CED”) on November 12, 2015, to seek treatment for depression and anxiety. (R. 764). Subsequently, Plaintiff returned to CED eight times for treatment from a licensed therapist until (March 28, 2017). (R. 746-8, 1293-9).[3] Over time, Plaintiff made minimal progress in coping with his depression. (R. 746, 1293, 1297-8). And, the therapist indicated after each visit that Plaintiff was oriented to person, place, time, and situation. (R. 746-8, 1293-9).[4] Also, there is no evidence that Plaintiff met with Dr. Feist until his final visit to CED in March 2017; instead, various therapists signed the remaining medical records from CED. (R.1299). Plaintiff now claims that Dr. Feist was his treating psychiatrist. (Pl.'s Mem. 20).

         The final page of the record is a portion of a yes/no questionnaire (the single-page exhibit begins with question 13), which the ALJ determined bears an illegible signature. (R. 74, 1359). The signee answered that Plaintiff can understand or carryout very short and simple instructions, interact with supervisors and co-workers, and maintain socially appropriate behavior. (R. 1359). The signee also indicated that Plaintiff cannot maintain attention for at least two hours, perform activities within a schedule and be punctual, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, nor adjust to routine and infrequent work changes; however, the partial form is not accompanied by any explanation or evidence. (R. 1359).

         III. ALJ Decision

         Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial work activity” involves significant physical or mental activities, and “gainful work activity” is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id.

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. When the claimant meets these criteria, the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still hold that the claimant is disabled after the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Then, in the fourth step, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. On the other hand, if the ALJ finds the claimant unable to perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the final step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         In the last portion of the test, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner to prove the existence, in significant numbers, of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do given his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c).

         In this case, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff has met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2013. (R. 68). Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 22, 2013, the alleged onset date of disability.[5] (R. 68). The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has the following medically determinable severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, depression, degenerative disc disorder, and obesity. (R. 68). However, the ALJ reasoned that the record does not demonstrate that Plaintiff has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 69).

         After considering whether Plaintiff's symptoms were reasonably consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence based on the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1529 and SSR 16-3p, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light unskilled work subject to additional limitations. (R. 71). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms, but that Plaintiff's statements and other allegations concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (R. 72).

         At the final step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not capable of performing past relevant work. When considering Plaintiff's age, limited education, work experience, and RFC, in addition to the Vocational Expert's testimony, however, the ALJ determined that there are existing jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (R. 75-6). Having found that Plaintiff has limitations that do not rise to the level of a disability and that he is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work available in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ held that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from the alleged onset date of disability to the date of decision. (R. 69, 76).

         IV. Plaintiff's Argument ...


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