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Hasberry v. Saul

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

January 8, 2020

SHARON HASBERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Sharon Hasberry seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Hasberry's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. After careful review, the Court remands the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Hasberry applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 6-3, p. 11; Doc. 6-6, p. 2). Ms. Hasberry alleges her disability began on June 4, 2014. (Doc. 6-3, p. 11; Doc. 6-6, p. 2). The Commissioner denied Ms. Hasberry's claim. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 8-11; Doc. 6-5, pp. 2-6).

         Ms. Hasberry requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-5, pp. 7-10). (Doc. 6-3, p. 33). After the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 8-21). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Hasberry's request for review (Doc. 6-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         To determine whether a claimant has proven disability, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Hasberry has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 4, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 14). The ALJ determined that Ms. Hasberry suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with chronic cervical and lumbar pain, status post anterior cervical discectomy and fusion; right foot pain; and status post hammertoe repair. (Doc. 6-3, p. 14). The ALJ determined that Ms. Hasberry suffers from the following non-severe impairments: depression and migraines. (Doc. 6-3, p. 15). In his opinion, the ALJ did not address whether Ms. Hasberry has an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, but because the ALJ continued the sequential analysis beyond step three, he impliedly determined that Ms. Hasberry's impairments do not meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment. Prince v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 551 Fed.Appx. 967, 969 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Hutchison v. Bowen, 787 F.2d 1461, 1463 (11th Cir. 1986)).[2]

         In light of Ms. Hasberry's impairments, the ALJ evaluated her residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that through her date last insured, Ms. Hasberry had the RFC to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can stand for no more than 30 minutes at a time, and occasionally stoop and crouch. She should have no exposure to unprotected heights. She can handle frequently, bilaterally; and should perform no activities involving driving.

(Doc. 6-3, pp. 15-16) (footnote omitted).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that through the date last insured, Ms. Hasberry could not perform her past relevant work as a security officer. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ noted that Ms. Hasberry was 53 years old when she applied for disability benefits. A person who is that age “is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age (20 CFR 404.1563).” (Doc. 6-3 p. 18). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that other jobs existed in the national economy that Ms. Hasberry could have performed, including hand packager, cashier, and laundry folder. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 20). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hasberry was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from June 4, 2014, the alleged onset date, through May 31, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 6-3, p. 20).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Hasberry appeals the ALJ's decision and maintains that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility under the Eleventh Circuit pain standard. (Doc. 11, p. 5). Ms. Hasberry contends that the objective medical evidence is consistent with her subjective complaints of pain, the ALJ improperly considered her activities of daily living without considering her limitations, and the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Dr. Richard Harris. The Court agrees that the ALJ did not base his negative credibility finding on substantial evidence. Consequently, the Court will remand this case for further development.

         The Eleventh Circuit pain standard “applies when a disability claimant attempts to establish disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991); Coley v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 Fed.Appx. 913, 917 (11th Cir. 2019). When relying upon subjective symptoms to establish disability, “the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged [symptoms]; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed [symptoms].” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223); Chatham v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 764 Fed.Appx. 864, 868 (11th Cir. Apr. 18, 2019) (citing Wilson). If the ALJ does not demonstrate “proper application of the three-part standard[, ]” reversal is appropriate. McLain v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 676 Fed.Appx. 935, 937 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Holt).

         A claimant's credible testimony coupled with medical evidence of an impairing condition “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223; see Gombash v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 566 Fed.Appx. 857, 859 (11th Cir. 2014) (“A claimant may establish that he has a disability ‘through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.'”) (quoting Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)). If an ALJ rejects a claimant's subjective testimony, then the ALJ “must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002); Coley, 771 Fed.Appx. at 918. The district court must accept the claimant's testimony, as a matter of law, if the ALJ inadequately discredits it. Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir. 1988); Kalishek v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 470 Fed.Appx. 868, 871 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Cannon).

         When credibility is at issue, the provisions of Social Security Regulation ...


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