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Reed v. Saul

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

September 25, 2019

DAVID J. REED, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          P. BRADLEY MURRAY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff David J. Reed brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his claim for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 25 (“In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, … order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”)). See Doc. 30. Upon consideration of the administrative reSwimcord, Reed’s brief, and the Commissioner’s brief, [2] it is determined that the Commissioner’s decision denying benefits should be affirmed.[3]

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On or about February 13, 2017, Reed applied for a Period of Disability and DIB, under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning on September 21, 2009. (Tr. 160-64). His application was denied at the initial level of administrative review on June 16, 2017. (Tr. 102-06). On June 28, 2017, Reed requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 109-10). On or about October 4, 2017, Reed submitted a statement amending his alleged onset date to March 19, 2015. (Tr. 204). After a hearing was held on December 6, 2017 (Tr. 2731-59), the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Reed was not under a disability from the alleged onset date of his disability through the date of the decision, April 5, 2018. (Tr. 15-41). Reed appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council, which denied his request for review on June 19, 2018. (Tr. 1-5).

         After exhausting his administrative remedies, Reed sought judicial review in this Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed an answer and the social security transcript on November 5, 2018. (Docs. 10, 11). This transcript was subsequently stricken and both a modified transcript and a supplemental transcript were filed in its place. (Docs. 17-1 & 17-2). Both parties filed briefs setting forth their respective positions. (Docs. 20, 22). The case is now ripe for decision.

         II. CLAIMS ON APPEAL

         Reed alleges that the ALJ’s decision to deny him benefits is in error for the following reasons:

1. The ALJ erred by failing to find Reed’s PTSD, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and degenerative joint disease (DJD) in the right shoulder to be severe impairments; and
2. The ALJ’s Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) determination was not supported by substantial evidence.

(Doc. 20 at pp. 1-2).

         III. BACKGROUND FACTS

         Reed was born on March 20, 1965 and was almost 52 years old at the time he filed his claim for benefits. (Tr. 160, 221). Reed initially alleged disability due to a left shoulder injury while on active duty in the Army, sciatica, and nerve damage in his right arm. (Tr. 225). Reed completed two years of college in 2001, and he received specialized training as a military medic in 1987 and again in 2008. (Tr. 226). He has worked in the past as a combat medic in the Army, a lab assistant, a phlebotomist, and an apartment maintenance technician, but he has not worked since his alleged onset date. (Tr. 226, 235). He indicated that he generally engages in normal daily activities; such as, personal care, some driving, light housework, food preparation, shopping, paperwork, reading his Bible, conversing with family and friends, and watching television. (Tr. 243-47). He testified that he attends church twice per week and enjoys volunteering at church and with the VA. (Tr. 2751-53). He reported that his memory has been hampered and his hearing and lung capacity reduced since his combat injury. (Tr. 248). Reed alleged that he is unable to work due to physical problems associated with his left shoulder, his reduced breathing, and his back and because he suffers from PTSD. (Tr. 2741-48).

         IV. ALJ’S DECISION

         After conducting a hearing on this matter, the ALJ made a determination that Reed had not been under a disability during the relevant time period, and thus, was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 15-41). The findings set forth by the ALJ in her April 5, 2018 decision that are relevant to the claims on appeal are set forth below.

         V. DISCUSSION

         Eligibility for a Period of Disability and DIB requires that the claimant be disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). A claimant is disabled if the claimant 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The impairment must be severe, making the claimant unable to do the claimant’s previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505-11. “Substantial gainful activity means work that … [i]nvolves doing significant and productive physical or mental duties [that] [i]s done (or intended) for pay or profit.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1510.

         In all Social Security cases, an ALJ utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation in determining whether the claimant is disabled:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the severe impairment meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairment in the regulations; (4) if not, whether the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether, in light of the claimant’s RFC, age, education and work experience, there are other jobs the claimant can perform.

Watkins v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 868, 870 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (c)-(f), 416.920(a)(4), (c)(f); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004)) (footnote omitted). The claimant bears the burden of proving the first four steps, and if the claimant does so, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the fifth step. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         If the claimant appeals an unfavorable ALJ decision, the reviewing court must determine whether the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits was “supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations omitted). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [the reviewing court] must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner’s] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The reviewing court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. When a decision is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court must affirm “[e]ven if [the court] find[s] that the evidence preponderates against the Secretary’s decision.” MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986).

         As set forth above, Reed has asserted two grounds in support of his argument that the Commissioner’s decision to deny him benefits is in error: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to find PTSD, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and degenerative joint disease (DJD) in the right shoulder to be severe impairments and (2) the ALJ’s Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) determination was not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 20 at pp. 1-2).

         A. Whether ALJ’s Determination that PTSD, Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, and Mild DJD Were Not Severe Impairments Was in Error

         Reed contends that the ALJ erred in failing to find that his PTSD, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and mild DJD in his right shoulder are severe impairments as defined by the applicable social security regulations. (Doc. 20 at pp. 2-5). The ALJ did analyze these impairments and determined that they were non-severe impairments. (Tr. 18.) The Commissioner argues that the issue of whether these impairments were properly classified is not relevant here because the ALJ did find that Reed had other severe impairments at step two and, thus, continued on with the sequential evaluation process. (Doc. 22 at p. 3). The Commissioner further asserts that, in assessing Reed’s RFC, the ALJ properly considered the limitations established ...


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