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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

May 21, 2015

OUIDA BETHUNE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

STEPHEN HYLES, Magistrate Judge.

The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) determination, granted Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), finding her disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and Regulations as of January 6, 2011. Plaintiff was thus entitled to collect DIB, including a back award from that date, but because the ALJ found that the disability onset date was January 6, 2011, rather than Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date of January 2, 2009, she was denied benefits as to that two year period. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision to deny DIB for this period was in error and seeks review under the relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). All administrative remedies have been exhausted. Both parties filed their written consents for all proceedings to be conducted by the United States Magistrate Judge, including the entry of a final judgment directly appealable to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).

LEGAL STANDARDS

The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam). "Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may neither decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.[1] Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must, however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision. Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must be affirmed if substantial evidence supports it. Id.

The Plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that he is unable to perform his previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001 (11th Cir.1986). The Plaintiff's burden is a heavy one and is so stringent that it has been described as bordering on the unrealistic. Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1083 (5th Cir. 1981). A Plaintiff seeking Social Security disability benefits must demonstrate that he/she suffers from an impairment that prevents him/her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a twelve-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In addition to meeting the requirements of these statutes, in order to be eligible for disability payments, a Plaintiff must meet the requirements of the Commissioner's regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority given in the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 et seq.

Under the Regulations, the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure to determine if a Plaintiff is disabled. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff is working. Id. If not, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff has an impairment which prevents the performance of basic work activities. Id. Second, the Commissioner determines the severity of the Plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments. Id. Third, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff's severe impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the Regulations (the "Listing"). Id. Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity can meet the physical and mental demands of past work. Id. Fifth and finally, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience prevent the performance of any other work. In arriving at a decision, the Commissioner must consider the combined effects of all of the alleged impairments, without regard to whether each, if considered separately, would be disabling. Id. The Commissioner's failure to apply correct legal standards to the evidence is grounds for reversal. Id.

ISSUES

I. Whether the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05C.

II. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to weigh the opinions of an examining psychologist, Dr. Solomon.

III. Whether the ALJ erred in finding January 6, 2011 as Plaintiff's disability onset date.

Administrative Proceedings

Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on September 29, 2010 and alleged therein disability as of January 2, 2009. Tr. 23, ECF No. 12. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ conducted a hearing on February 14, 2013. Id. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a "partially favorable" decision on March 12, 2014. Tr. 23-35. The Appeals Council ultimately denied Plaintiff's Request for Review on August 27, 2014. Tr. 9-11. This appeal followed.

Statement of Facts and Evidence

After consideration of the written evidence and the hearing testimony in this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2013. Tr. 25. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 2, 2009. Id. The ALJ then found that as of January 2, 2009, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left knee cartilage injury and major depressive disorder, recurrent and severe with psychotic features. Id. As of January 6, 2011, the ALJ added "with likely emerging schizophrenia" to the major depressive disorder as a severe impairment. Tr. 27. However, the ...


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