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Herron v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         On June 19, 2015, Plaintiff Kimberly Herron applied for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The claimant alleged a disability beginning on March 19, 2011 preventing her from employment. (R. 138). The Commissioner denied her claim on September 28, 2015. The Plaintiff then filed a timely request for and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (R. 81). The ALJ held the hearing on November 9, 2016. (R. 31).

         In a decision dated June 1, 2017, the ALJ denied the claim, finding that the claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to social security disability benefits. (R. 10, 25). On February 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied a subsequent request for review. (R. 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Based on the court’s review of the record in this case and the parties’ briefs, the court will affirm the Commissioner’s decision.


         The claimant presents the following issues for review:

         1. Whether the ALJ had sufficient evidence to make an informed decision when the record did not contain an IQ test;

         2. Whether the ALJ erred by failing to expressly consider the claimant’s “extremely low intellectual functioning” under Listing 12.05; and

         3. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that the claimant has a residual functional capacity to find work within the economy.


         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner’s decision is limited. The court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports his factual conclusions. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         “No . . . presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner’s] legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. The court does not review the Commissioner’s factual determinations de novo. The court will affirm those factual determinations supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).

         The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant’s residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors “are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, the 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(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant meets the listing and 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 of 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 if substantial evidence in the record supports it.

         The court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]’s factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable 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 12 months . . . .” To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process.

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person’s impairment severe?
(3) Does the person’s impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
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.”

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).

         To satisfy step three, the claimant’s impairment must meet “all of the criteria” of that listing under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, “including any relevant criteria in the introduction, and the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(c)(3). To have a disability under Listing 12.05, the claimant must show that she has (1) significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning; (2) significant deficits in adaptive functioning; and (3) a history of disorder that demonstrates the disorder began prior to the age of 22. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.05.

         Under the second element of Listing 12.05, to establish significant deficits in adaptive functioning, the ALJ must find one extreme limitation or two marked limitations in the following areas of mental functioning: (1) understanding, remembering, and applying information; (2) interacting with others; (3) concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; or (4) adapting or managing oneself. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.05. The ALJ must find the same significant deficits in adaptive functioning for the claimant to have a disability under Listings 12.02, 12.04, and 12.06. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, §§ 12.02, 12.04, 12.06.

         When considering a claimant’s case, the ALJ has a basic obligation to develop a full and fair record, which ensures that the ALJ has fulfilled his duty to scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all the relevant facts. Welch v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 436, 440 (11th Cir. 1988). A full and fair record is one that enables a reviewing court “to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits is rational and supported by substantial evidence.” See Id . A full and fair record must include the claimant’s medical history for the 12 months prior to the date of the application for Supplemental Security Income. Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

         The claimant bears the burden to prove that she is disabled. See Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). While the ALJ must consider all the relevant facts, she does not need to explicitly evaluate the claimant’s impairment under every listing. Hutchison v. Bowen, 787 F.2d 1461, 1463 (11th Cir. 1986). However, when evaluating the evidence, the ALJ must state with particularity the weight she gave different medical opinions and the reasons for that weight; the failure to do so is reversible error. Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987).

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was 41 years old at the time of the ALJ’s final decision. (R. 34). The claimant has an eighth grade education and no past relevant work, though she briefly worked at a furniture plant, car wash, and fast food chain at separate times prior to 2010. (R. 36, 47, 160). The claimant’s original application alleges disability based on back pain and mental problems. (R. 159).

         Physical Impairments

         Though the claimant appeals the ALJ’s evaluations of only her mental impairments and not her physical impairments, the claimant did apply for disability based on her chronic back pain, so the ...

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