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Smith v. Social Security Administration

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

January 9, 2020

TERESA LYNNE SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The plaintiff, Teresa Lynne Smith, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Smith timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         Smith has a high school education and has previously been employed as a laborer for a trucking company, a cook, a courier, and a cleaner. (Tr. at 38, 40-43, 64-71). In her applications for DIB and SSI, Smith alleged she became disabled on November 15, 2012, due to chronic pain in her knees and ankles, anxiety, depression, muscle spasms, and high blood pressure. (Id. at 105). After her claims were denied, Smith requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 10). Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Smith's claims. (Id. at 10-20). Smith was forty-six years old when the ALJ issued the decision. (Id. at 10, 195). After the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision (id. at 1-3), that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1251 (N.D. Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). Thereafter, Smith commenced this action. (Doc. 1).

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To establish eligibility 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). Furthermore, a claimant must show she was disabled between her alleged initial onset date and her date last insured. Mason v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 430 Fed.Appx. 830, 831 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Demandre v. Califano, 591 F.2d 1088, 1090 (5th Cir. 1979)). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and (b), 416.920(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Smith met the SSA's insured status requirements through December 31, 2017, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 15, 2012. (Tr. at 12).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined Smith has the following severe impairment: reconstructive surgery of weight bearing joints. (Id. at 12).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the “Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and (d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Smith does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 14).

         If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare an assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (e). If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1).

         Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined Smith has the RFC to perform a limited range of light work. (Tr. at 14).[2] At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Smith is able to perform her past relevant work as a courier. (Id. at 17). Nonetheless, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth step and determined that considering Smith's age, education, work experience, and RFC there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Smith can perform, such as those of assembler, wire worker, and inspector checker. (Id. at 18-19). The ALJ concluded Smith is not disabled based on her determinations at the fourth and fifth steps of the sequential evaluation.

         III. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted ...


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