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Allen v. Saul

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

September 4, 2019

KIMBERLY PARKS ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The plaintiff, Kimberly Parks Allen, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner[1] of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income benefits (“SSI”). Allen timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the full dispositive jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). Doc. 10.

         Allen was 47 years old at the time of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and she has at least a high school education. Tr. at 27-28 & 211. Her past work experience is as a bus operator. Tr. at 27 & 61. Allen asserts that she became disabled on January 22, 2015. She asserts that she became unable to work because of chronic back pain from degenerative disc disease, severe pain in the left shoulder from a rotator cuff tear, and arthritis. Tr. at 68.

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation ends. 2 0 C . F. R . §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, he or she will be found to be disabled without further consideration. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & 416.920(e). RFC is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & 416.920(a)(4)(v). The Commissioner bears the burden of demonstrating the existence of other jobs that the claimant can perform, and once that burden is met the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that the plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of his decision. Tr. at 29. The ALJ first determined that Allen meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020. Tr. at 21. He next found that the plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 22, 2015, the alleged onset date. Tr. at 21. According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's “lumbar degenerative disc disease with intermittent radiculopathy, obesity, left (non-dominant) rotator cuff tear, chronic kidney disease, and arthritis” are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. Tr. at 22. He further determined that Allen has nonsevere impairments of hypertension and cellulitis. Tr. at 22.

         The ALJ found that Allen does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that either meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. at 22-24. The ALJ determined that Allen's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence or other evidence in the record.” Tr. at 25.

         The ALJ then determined that the plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work with certain limitations.

She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or reach overhead with the non-dominant left upper extremity. She can never crawl or perform around work hazards. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She will require an option to change from an upright (standing or walking) posture to a seated posture as frequently as every 30 minutes and is able to perform work activity in either posture.

Tr. at 24.

         Moving on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Allen is unable to perform her past relevant work as a bus operator. Tr. at 27. The ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), who testified that the plaintiff remains able to perform work as a surveillance system monitor, call out operator, and lens inserter. Tr. at 28. The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that the plaintiff is not disabled under Sections 216(i), 223(d), or 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Tr. at 29.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997)). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         II. ...


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