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Daniels v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 27, 2017




         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge Morton J. Gold, Jr., (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Gold”) denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award him benefits or, in the alternative, to remand this case for a proper determination of the evidence. Defendant asserts the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision. I also RECOMMEND that the Court DIRECT the Clerk of Court to CLOSE this case.


         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits on April 4, 2012, alleging that he became disabled on April 4, 2012, due to high blood pressure, back and heart problems, and sleep apnea. (Doc. 9-3, p. 2.) After his claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. On November 6, 2013, ALJ Gold conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Dr. Ron Spitznagle, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. ALJ Gold found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 9-2, p. 21.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review. (Id. at p. 2.)

         Plaintiff, born on October 24, 1963, was fifty (50) years old when ALJ Gold issued his final decision. He has a limited ninth grade education. (Id. at p. 29.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes employment as an electrical helper. (Id.)


         I. The ALJ's Findings

         Pursuant to the 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 determines if 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. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 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, the plaintiff is presumed disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         If the impairment does not meet or equal one of the listed impairments, the sequential evaluation proceeds to the fourth step to determine if the impairment precludes the claimant from performing past relevant work, i.e., whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work. Id.; Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 503 F. App'x 692, 693 (11th Cir. 2013). A claimant's residual functional capacity “is an assessment . . . of the claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments.” Id. at 693-94 (ellipsis in original) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)). If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, the final step of the evaluation process determines 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.

         In the instant case, the ALJ followed this sequential process to determine that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of April 4, 2012, through the date of ALJ Gold's decision on April 16, 2014. (Doc. 9-2, p. 23.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had recurrent arrhythmias, bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbrosacral spine exacerbated by obesity, conditions considered “severe” under the Regulations. However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.[1] (Id.) ALJ Gold also determined Plaintiff suffers from hypertension and hyperlipidemia but concluded these conditions were non-severe impairments. (Id. at p. 24.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity, through the date of his decision, to perform work at the light exertional level, with the following exceptions: no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; standing or walking and pushing or pulling for six hours in an eight-hour workday; lifting or carrying twenty pounds occasionally (up to one-third of an eight-hour workday) and ten pounds frequently (up to two-thirds of an eight-hour workday); occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and avoiding concentrated exposure to extreme vibrations. (Id. at pp. 25-26.) At the next step, ALJ Gold noted Plaintiff was not able to perform his past relevant work as an electrical helper. (Id. at p. 29.) The ALJ concluded at the fifth and final step that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of ticket taker, photocopy machine operator, and plastic hospital product assembler, all of which are light, unskilled jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at p. 30.)

         II. Issues Presented

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by failing to properly take into account that, at the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was already fifty (50) years of age, which required the application of different Rules and regulations. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ failed to adequately discuss the fact he is illiterate. In addition, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding for light work should have been at the sedentary level, at best. Plaintiff alleges ALJ Gold mischaracterized the vocational expert's testimony. (Doc. 11, p. 1.)

         III. Standard of Review

         It is well-established that judicial review of social security cases is limited to questions of whether the Commissioner's factual findings 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 which a reasonable mind would find adequate to support a conclusion. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). 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 must also determine whether the ALJ or Commissioner applied appropriate legal standards. Failure ...

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