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Hester v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division

December 23, 2014

DANNY TIM HESTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JAMES E. GRAHAM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge John R. Mason ('the ALJ" or "ALJ Mason") denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand the case with instructions to award benefits or, alternatively, to conduct further administrative proceedings. Plaintiff also requests an award of attorney's fees. Defendant asserts that the Court should affirm the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner").

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security Income on November 22, 2011, alleging that he became disabled on October 29, 2011, due to a broken left femur close to his hip. (Doc. 16, p. 1). After his claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. ]) On February 8, 2013, ALJ Mason conducted a video hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Tr. at 310, 314-34, 336-37). Ronald Spitznagel, a vocational expert ("the VE"), also testified at the hearing. (Tr. at 335-42). ALJ Mason found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 24). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review. (Tr. at 3).

Plaintiff, born on January 17, 1965 (Tr. at 89), was forty-eight years old when AU Mason issued his final decision. He has an eighth grade education. (Tr. at 314). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes employment as a concrete worker, concrete rubber, and tire repairer. (Tr. at 21).

ALJ'S FINDINGS

Pursuant to the Social Security Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process to determine whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). The first step looks to whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then benefits are immediately denied. Id . If the claimant is not engaged in such activity, then the second inquiry is whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. at 140-41. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is severe, then the evaluation proceeds to step three. The third step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations and acknowledged by the Commissioner as sufficiently severe to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P. App. 1; Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is presumed disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. If the impairment does not meet or equal one of the listed impairments, then the sequential evaluation continues to the fourth step to assess whether the impairment precludes the claimant from performing past relevant work. Id . If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, then the final step of the evaluation process examines whether he is able to make adjustments to other work in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1239. Disability benefits will be awarded only if the claimant is unable to perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142.

ALJ Mason followed this sequential evaluation process, finding at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of October 29, 2011. (Tr. at 16). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had a medically severe impairment of "[s]tatus post fracture of the left femur" (id.), [1] which the ALJ concluded did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment at step three (Tr. at 18). According to ALJ Mason, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity, through the date of his decision, to perform sedentary work that is not hazardous, involves no contact with the public and only nonintensive contact with coworkers, provides verbal instructions, and requires no written work product. (Tr. at 18-19). At the fourth step, ALJ Mason noted Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a concrete worker, concrete rubber, and tire repairer. (Tr. at 25). Proceeding to the fifth and final step, the ALJ determined that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, Plaintiff could perform the following jobs existing in the national economy: assembler, lampshade assembler, and table worker/assembler. (Tr. at 22-23).

ISSUES PRESENTED

Plaintiff presents the following issues to the Court: 1) whether the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the ALJ properly relied on the VE's testimony to demonstrate that Plaintiff could adjust to other work in the national economy.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

It is well-established that judicial review of social security cases is limited to questions of whether the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by "substantial evidence" and whether the Commissioner has applied appropriate legal standards. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A reviewing court does not "decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence or substitute' its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's factual findings, the court must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

However, substantial evidence must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be proved. The evidence relied upon must be relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would find adequate to support a conclusion. Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838-39 (11th Cir. 1982). The substantial evidence standard requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of evidence. Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210. In its review, the court also must determine whether the ALJ or the Commissioner applied appropriate legal standards. Failure to delineate and apply the appropriate standards mandates that the findings be vacated and remanded for clarification. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1146.

DISCUSSION AND CITATION TO AUTHORITY

I. The ALJ's Determination of Plaintiff's Residual ...


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