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Jacobs v. Berryhill

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

August 15, 2019

BRIAN EUGENE JACOBS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Brian Eugene Jacobs brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). This court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal standard and that his decision-which has become the decision of the Commissioner-is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court affirms the decision denying benefits.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Jacobs worked as a forklift operator, press operator, and assembly line worker until he stopped working in 2014 at age 46 due to his alleged disability. R. 420-21, 432, 435. Thereafter, Jacobs filed applications for disability benefits, asserting initially that he suffered from a disability beginning January 1, 2014, but amending it later to December 26, 2014, due to a heart condition, blood clots, and a history of a gunshot wound. R. 12, 101-02, 374, 378, 420. After the SSA denied Jacobs' application, Jacobs requested a formal hearing before an ALJ. R. 260-62. The ALJ held two administrative hearings to allow Jacobs to submit additional medical records that he had not submitted before the first hearing. See R. 50, 97, 103. Ultimately, the ALJ entered a decision against Jacobs. R. 9-27. The SSA Appeals Council summarily affirmed the ALJ's decision denying disability benefits, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1. Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Jacobs filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g). Doc. 1.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner's “factual findings are conclusive if supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “‘reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.'” Id. (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of evidence; “‘[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner's factual findings even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. See Id. While judicial review of the ALJ's findings is limited in scope, it “does not yield automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.

         In contrast to the deferential review accorded the Commissioner's factual findings, “conclusions of law, including applicable review standards, are not presumed valid” and are subject to de novo review. Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. The Commissioner's failure to “apply the correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed” requires reversal. Id.

         III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify 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. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Specifically, the ALJ must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
(4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national economy.

See McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.'” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once [a] finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). However, the claimant ultimately bears the burden of proving that she is disabled, and, “consequently he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” See, e.g., Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a), (c)).

         The Act precludes an award of benefits when drug or alcohol abuse is a contributing factor material to the finding of disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. Thus, if a claimant is found disabled and medical evidence of substance abuse exists, the ALJ must determine whether the substance abuse is a contributing factor to the finding of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535(a). To do so, the ALJ must evaluate which of the claimant's physical and mental limitations would remain if he stopped using drugs or alcohol and then decide whether any of those remaining limitations would be disabling. Id. at § 404.1535(b)(2).

         IV. THE ...


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