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Earp v. Saul

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

September 26, 2019

HOMER EARP, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On June 25, 2015, Plaintiff Homer Earp, Jr. filed an application for disability insurance benefits. His alleged disability onset date is May 18, 2015. Earp’s application for benefits was denied at the initial administrative level. Earp then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a hearing on March 1, 2017, and he denied Earp’s claims on June 1, 2017. Earp requested a review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council, which declined review on January 4, 2018. As a result, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) as of January 4, 2018.

         Earp’s case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Based on a careful review of the parties’ submissions, the relevant law, and the record as a whole, the court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be AFFIRMED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court reviews a Social Security appeal to determine whether the Commissioner’s decision “is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The court will reverse the Commissioner’s decision if it is convinced that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence or that the proper legal standards were not applied. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). The court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, ” but rather “must defer to the Commissioner’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if the evidence preponderates against the Secretary’s factual findings, [the court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). Moreover, reversal is not warranted even if the court itself would have reached a result contrary to that of the factfinder. See Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991).

         The substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable person would accept the evidence in the record as adequate to support the challenged conclusion.” Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1208 (11th Cir. 1988) (quoting Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983)). The requisite evidentiary showing has been described as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached and cannot “act as [an] automaton[] in reviewing the [Commissioner’s] decision.” Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court must consider evidence both favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner’s decision. Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 225 (11th Cir. 1990).

         The court will reverse the Commissioner’s decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Grant v. Astrue, 255 F. App’x 374, 375–76 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Keeton v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner’s conclusions of law are valid. Id.

         II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the “inability 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) & 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). Earp bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and is responsible for producing evidence sufficient to support his claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

         A determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) Is the claimant presently unable to engage in substantial gainful activity?
(2) Are the claimant’s impairments severe?
(3) Do the claimant’s impairments satisfy or medically equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform other work given her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience?

See Frame v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 596 F. App’x 908, 910 (11th Cir. 2015). “An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, [at] steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than at step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once the finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 1516 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Earp was 40 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision. R. 37. He lives with his son and a roommate in Decatur, Alabama. R. 43 & 135. His primary complaint is chronic venous insufficiency. On his application for disability benefits, he alleged that nephrolithiasis, peripheral vascular disease, sick sinus syndrome, and varicose veins of lower extremities prevented him from working. R. 171.

         Earp completed high school, some vocational training, and one year of college. R. 37. He worked as a machine operator at General Electric for almost 15 years, from 1999 until 2015. R. 38 & 171–72. His last employment ended on May 18, 2015. R. 171. He has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since that date. R. 12.

         The ALJ held a hearing in Earp’s case on March 1, 2017. R. 33. At the hearing, Earp testified that his average pain level is 5 on a scale from 1 to 10. R. 40. He also testified that he suffers two bad days per week. R. 40–41. Earp defined “bad days” as those where he could not stand and his pain level was 9.5. R. 40. Earp said that generally he could stand on his feet for one hour without needing to sit down and ...


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