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Burnett v. Saul

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

September 18, 2019

VIVIAN LORRAINE BURNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Vivian Lorraine Burnett (“Burnett”), appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Burnett 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), 1383(c)(3).

         Burnett was fifty-four years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 180, 205.) Her past work experiences include employment as a dishwasher and cook. (Tr. At 205.) Burnett claims that she became disabled on May 12, 2014, due to depression, anxiety, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post lumbar fusion at ¶ 5-S1, lumbar facet arthropathy, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, and osteoarthritis. (Tr. at 20.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id . §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff’s medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See Id . §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See Id . §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See Id . §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff’s RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See Id . §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Burnett meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 20.) He further determined that Burnett has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post lumbar fusion at ¶ 5-S1, lumbar facet arthropathy, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, osteoarthritis, depression, and anxiety are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, he found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ did not find Burnett’s allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that Burnett has the following RFC:

to perform medium wok as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can never work around unprotected heights. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions for two hours periods and can sustain these activities for an eight-hour day if provided all customary mid-morning, lunch, and mid-afternoon breaks. Decision-making and changes in the work setting are limited to occasion. Interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors are limited to occasional.

(Tr. at 22.)

         According to the ALJ, Burnett has no past relevant work. (Tr. at 26.) She was 50 years old at the alleged onset date, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age. (Id.) She has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. (Id.) The ALJ determined that transferability of job skills is not an issue because of the lack of past relevant work. (Id.) Because Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of medium work, the ALJ enlisted a vocational expert (“VE”) and used Medical-Vocation Rule 203.21 as a guideline. Considering Burnett’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as automobile parts assembler, a laundry worker, and a packager. (Tr. at 27.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “was not under a ‘disability, ’ as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from May 12, 2014, through the date of this decision.” (Id.)

         II. ...


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