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Jones v. Saul

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

September 17, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff James Glen Jones appeals from the decision of the Commissioner[1] of the Social Security Administration denying his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Jones timely pursued and exhausted his 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 dispositive jurisdiction of a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Doc. 9. Accordingly, the court issues the following memorandum opinion.

         Jones was 46 years old on the date an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) reached an opinion on his application. Tr. at 13 & 21–22. His past work experience includes employment as a chicken hatchery worker and rock mason. Tr. at 21. Jones claims that he became disabled on April 25, 2014 due to issues with his back, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis or gout in his joints, asthma, and bilateral broken ankles. Tr. at 83.

         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; 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 he is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation ends. Id. If he is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the plaintiff’s physical and mental impairments in combination. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends on 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 ends. 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 will be found to be disabled without further consideration. Id. 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 work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant’s impairments prevent him 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 perform his past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation ends. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether he 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. Id. The burden is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform, but once that burden is met the claimant must prove his inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Jones met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. Tr. at 13. She further determined that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of April 25, 2014. Tr. at 13. According to the ALJ, Jones had the following impairments that are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations: “degenerative disk disease, degenerative joint disease, asthma, and obesity.” Tr. at 13. She also determined that Jones’ gout, hypertension, and bilateral ankle fractures are non-severe. Tr. At 14. The ALJ found that Jones’ allegations of hip pain were not supported by evidence of a medically determinable physical or mental condition, and that his complaints of musculoskeletal pain were a result of his obesity. Tr. at 14. The ALJ found that Jones’ severe and non-severe impairments, separately and in combination, neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. at 14. The ALJ determined that Jones had the RFC to perform work at a sedentary level of exertion as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) with additional restrictions. Tr. at 16. The ALJ elaborated:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) with the following limitations addressed herein. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can frequently balance and stoop, occasionally kneel and crouch, but never crawl. He can constantly reach, handle, finger, and feel. He should avoid exposure to hazardous environments such as unprotected heights.

Tr. at 16.

         According to the ALJ, Jones is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he is a “younger individual,” and he has a “limited education,” as those terms are defined by the regulations. Tr. at 21. She determined that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is ‘not disabled,’ whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.” Tr. at 21. Even though Jones cannot perform a full range of sedentary work, the ALJ determined that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he is capable of performing, such as assembler, table worker, and machine operator feeder/auto grinder. Tr. at 21–22. The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 25, 2014 through the date of the decision.” Tr. at 22.


         This court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record 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 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). 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. Federal Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, the court must affirm the decision if it 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).

         The court must keep in mind that opinions on whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant’s RFC, and the application of vocational factors “are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e) & 416.927(d). Whether the plaintiff meets the listing and therefore is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support it.


         Jones argues that the ALJ’s decision that he has the RFC to perform sedentary work is not supported by substantial evidence. In general, RFC is a determination of the work that a claimant can perform in spite of his or her limitations. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996). The RFC is the ceiling, or the maximum that a claimant is capable of doing given his or her medical condition. Id. When there is no allegation of a physical or mental impairment and the record contains no medical evidence that such an impairment exists, the ALJ should assume that that there is no impairment of that functional capacity. Id. at *3. When establishing an RFC for any claimant, the ALJ must explain how the evidence supports the RFC. Specifically, SSR 96-8p requires as follows:

The RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations). In assessing RFC, the adjudicator must discuss the individual’s ability to perform sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis (i.e., 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule), and describe the maximum amount of each work-related activity the individual can perform based on the evidence available in the case record. The adjudicator must also explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved. . . .
The RFC assessment must include a discussion of why reported symptom-related functional limitations and restrictions can or cannot reasonably be accepted as consistent with the medical and other evidence. In instances in which the adjudicator has observed the individual, he or she is not free to accept or reject that ...

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