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Faircloth v. Saul

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

October 28, 2019

JONATHAN FAIRCLOTH, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN RUSS WALKER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On August 16, 2015, Plaintiff Jonathan Faircloth filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging that he became disabled on August 16, 2015. The application was denied at the initial administrative level. Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision dated May 26, 2017. Plaintiff appealed that decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 7, 2018. The ALJ's decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The case is now before the court for review of that decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. See Docs. 9, 10. Based on review of the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the record as a whole, the court will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK[2]

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. This court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, ” but less than a preponderance, “and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (“Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [a reviewing court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence”) (citations omitted). 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). However, 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). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of the record which support the decision of the ALJ, but instead must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).

[The court must] . . . scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner's] . . . factual findings. . . . No. similar presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] . . . legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims.

Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a person must be 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).[3] To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

(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 [the Listing of Impairments]?
(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).

         The burden of proof rests on the claimant through Step Four. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1239 (11th Cir. 2004); see also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003). A claimant establishes a prima facie case of qualifying disability once he or she has carried the burden of proof from Step One through Step Four. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         To perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238-1239. The RFC is what the claimant is still able to do despite the claimant's impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It may contain both exertional and nonexertional limitations. Id. at 1242-1243. At the fifth step, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if there are jobs available in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To do this, the ALJ can use either the Medical Vocational Guidelines (“grids”), see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2, or call a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 1239-1240.

         The grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or light work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. Each factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an individual. Id. 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorily-required finding of “Disabled” or “Not Disabled.” Id.

         III. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff was 20 years old at the time he filed his application for benefits and was twenty-two years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. R. 39, 245. He completed the eleventh grade and lives alone in a three-bedroom home. R. 115-116. Plaintiff testified that he has never had a job and that his mother helps him pay bills. R. 116-117.

         Following the administrative hearing, and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found at Step One that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 16, 2015, the application date[.]”[4] R. 24. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: “Crohn's Disease/Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Diabetes Mellitus, Chronic Kidney Disease, Borderline Intellectual Functioning, Affective Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, and Hypertension[.]” Id. At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination ...


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