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Dennison v. Saul

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

July 31, 2019

CODY T. DENNISON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          BRADLEY MURRAY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Cody T. Dennison brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for supplemental security income benefits. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Docs. 14 & 15 (“In accordance with provisions of 28 U.S.C. §636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States magistrate judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, . . . order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”)). Upon consideration of the administrative record, Plaintiff's brief, and the Commissioner's brief, [1] the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision denying benefits should be affirmed.[2]

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income benefits, on or about March 29, 2016, alleging disability beginning on April 28, 2011. (See Tr. 131-39.) Dennison's claim was initially denied on May 25, 2016 (Tr. 68 & 71-76) and, following Plaintiff's June 16, 2016 written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (see Tr. 80-82), a hearing was conducted before an ALJ on November 29, 2017 (Tr. 30-54). On April 28, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding that the claimant was not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to SSI benefits. (Tr. 15-23). More specifically, the ALJ determined that Dennison retains the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with certain identified nonexertional limitations, and can perform those medium and light jobs identified by the vocational expert (“VE”) during the administrative hearing (compare Id. at 19 & 22 with Tr. 50-51). On May 29, 2018, the Plaintiff filed a written request for review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision (Tr. 130) and, on November 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Dennison's request for review (Tr. 1-3). Thus, the hearing decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to autism spectrum disorder and adjustment disorder. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) made the following relevant findings:

2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: autism spectrum disorder and adjustment disorder (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant can perform simple, routine tasks in 2-hour increments with normal breaks for the duration of an 8-hour workday. The claimant can tolerate occasional change in a routine work setting. The claimant should have no direct interaction with the public and occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers. The claimant can work in close proximity to others, but he must work independently, not in a team.
5. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on April 28, 1993, and was 22 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.963).
7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
8. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.968).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since March 2, 2016, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)).

(Tr. 17, 19, 21 & 22 (emphasis in original)).

         II. Standard of Review and Claim on Appeal

         A claimant is entitled to an award of supplemental security income benefits when he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). In determining whether a claimant has met his burden of proving disability, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, if a claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). At the second step, if a claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities (that is, a severe impairment), he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, if a claimant proves that his impairments meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404, the claimant will be considered disabled without consideration of age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). At the fourth step, if the claimant is unable to prove the existence of a listed impairment, he must prove that his physical and/or mental impairments prevent him from performing any past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). And at the fifth step, the Commissioner must consider the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether the claimant can perform other work besides past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process, see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294 n.5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987), and while the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step of the process to establish other jobs existing in substantial numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, [3] the ultimate burden of proving disability never shifts from the plaintiff, see, e.g., Green v. Social Security Administration, 223 Fed.Appx. 915, 923 (11th Cir. May 2, 2007) (“If a claimant proves that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, in the fifth step, ‘the burden shifts to the Commissioner to determine if there is other work available in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant is able to perform.' . . . Should the Commissioner ‘demonstrate that there are jobs the claimant can perform, the claimant must prove she is unable to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled.'”).[4]

         The task for the Magistrate Judge is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision to deny claimant benefits is supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla and means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, we must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).[5] Courts are precluded, however, from “deciding the facts anew or re-weighing the evidence.” Davison v. Astrue, 370 Fed.Appx. 995, 996 (11th Cir. Apr. 1, 2010) (per curiam), citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). And, “[e]ven if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [a court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Id., citing Crawford v. Commissioner of Social Security, 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-1159 (11th Cir. 2004).

         On appeal to this Court, Dennison asserts that the Commissioner's decision denying him benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and, indeed, is contradicted by all the opinion evidence in the record. In particular, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ cherry-picked evidence showing moderate limitations, while dismissing multiple opinions showing Plaintiff has marked limitations in more than one area of functioning. And, according to Plaintiff, the ALJ cites to no evidence which explicitly supports her rejection of the opinions of Dr. John W. Davis and Robin Wood, LPC-S, NCC, RPT-S.

         The responsibility for making the residual functional capacity determination rests with the ALJ. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c) (“If your case is at the administrative law judge hearing level . . ., the administrative law judge . . . is responsible for assessing your residual functional capacity.”) with, e.g., Packer v. Commissioner, Social Security Admin., 542 Fed.Appx. 890, 891-892 (11th Cir. Oct. 29, 2013) (per curiam) (“An RFC determination is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. There is no rigid requirement that the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence, so long as the ALJ's decision is not a broad rejection, i.e., where the ALJ does not provide enough reasoning for a reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ considered the claimant's medical condition as a whole.” (internal citation omitted)). A plaintiff's RFC-which “includes physical abilities, such as sitting, standing or walking, and mental abilities, such as the ability to understand, remember and carry out instructions or to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers and work pressure[]”-“is a[n] [] assessment of what the claimant can do in a work setting despite any mental, physical or environmental limitations caused by the claimant's impairments and related symptoms.” Watkins v. Commissioner of Social Security,457 Fed.Appx. 868, 870 n.5 (11th Cir. Feb. 9, 2012) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)-(c), 416.945(a)-(c)); see also Davison, supra, 370 Fed.Appx. at 996 (“An ALJ makes an RFC ...


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