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Bristow v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 20, 2019

BESSIE M. BRISTOW, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Stephen M. Doyle, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Bessie M. Bristow seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. Bristow filed her DIB and SSI applications on January 18, 2016, alleging a disability onset date of December 16, 2015. (R. 186). The applications were denied at the initial administrative level, after which Bristow requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 298-309, 230-262). On December 6, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, (R. 183-197), and the Appeals Council denied Bristow’s request for review of that decision on September 4, 2018, (R. 1-4). The ALJ’s decision consequently became the Commissioner’s final decision. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). This court has jurisdiction over Bristow’s action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge.

         Bristow argues that in consequence of erroneously rejecting and/or failing to consider specified medical evidence, the Commissioner failed to properly assess her residual functional capacity after completing the third step of the five-step sequential process and that the Commissioner failed to consider all of her impairments at the fifth step of the process, and for those reasons failed to carry his burden to establish that Bristow was not disabled for purposes of the Act.

         The undersigned has considered the parties’ briefs and all of the evidence in the administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

         To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a claimant has made the required demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At the first four steps of the process, the burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and final step does the burden of proof shift to the Commissioner. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1239 (11th Cir. 2004).

         At the first step, an Administrative Law Judge considers the claimant’s work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b). Otherwise, the evaluation will proceed to the second step.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant’s impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant’s ability to perform basic work activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. If the ALJ finds that the claimant’s impairments are not severe or do not meet the duration requirement, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). An impairment or combination of impairments can be found not severe only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has 'no more than a minimal effect on an individual’s ability to work. S.S.R. 85-28 (S.S.A. 1985).

         If the claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant’s impairments meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), and 416.920(d). If the claimant’s impairments are equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, the claimant will conclusively be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d).

         If the claimant’s impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and the fourth steps the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant’s case record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant’s capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, [2] despite the limitations imposed by the claimant’s impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a); see also S.S.R. No. 96-8p (S.S.A. July 2, 1996).

         At the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant’s past relevant work. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the claimant’s RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f). In the event the claimant is no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final step, at which the burden of proof shifts, for the first time, to the Commissioner.

         At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant’s age, education, and work experience to determine whether a person with those characteristics and RFC could perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. If the Commissioner meets his burden to demonstrate the existence in significant numbers in the national economy of jobs capable of being performed by a person with the RFC assessed by the ALJ between the third and fourth steps of the five-step process, the claimant is found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet that burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited. The Court’s sole function is to determine whether the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence, and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Accordingly, a reviewing court must affirm an ALJ’s decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). ‚ÄúSubstantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such ...


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