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Rowland v. Colvin

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

March 10, 2017

AMY ROWLAND, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge John H. Maclean, (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Maclean”) denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff urges the Court 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 November 16, 2012, alleging that she became disabled on July 1, 2012, due to chronic migraine headaches, as well as back, neck, and feet impairments. (Doc. 9-5, p. 2; Doc. 9-6, p. 6.) After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. On November 6, 2014, ALJ Maclean conducted a video hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by Andrew S. Youngman, a non-attorney representative, appeared and testified in Waycross, Georgia, while the ALJ presided in Savannah, Georgia. (Doc. 9-2, p. 19.) Kenneth L. Bennett, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. (Id.) ALJ Maclean found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at p. 28.) 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 August 20, 1979, was thirty-five (35) years old when ALJ Maclean issued his final decision. She has a high school education. (Doc. 9-6, p. 7.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes employment as a cashier/checker, nurse assistant, and dispatcher. (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 as defined by the “severity regulation.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c); 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 (“the 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 (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work. Id.; Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 503 F.App'x 692, 693 (11th Cir. 2013). A claimant's RFC “is an assessment . . . of the claimant's remaining ability to do work despite h[er] 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 her past relevant work, the final step of the evaluation process determines whether she is able to make adjustments to other work in the national economy, considering her 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 her alleged onset date of July 1, 2012, through the date of ALJ Maclean's decision on January 15, 2015. (Doc. 9-2, p. 21.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had migraine headaches, obesity, and anxiety/depression, conditions considered “severe” under the severity regulation. However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment under the Regulations. (Id. at p. 22) ALJ Maclean also determined Plaintiff suffers from bilateral foot pain, hypertension, and low back pain, but concluded these conditions were non-severe impairments. (Id.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC, through the date of his decision, to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that Plaintiff should perform simple, repetitive, and routine work; interact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors occasionally; be required to do no fast-paced work; occasionally flex the neck; should not work around hazardous machinery; can occasionally stoop; and can frequently crawl, kneel, and crouch. (Id. at p. 24.) At the next step, ALJ Maclean noted Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work. (Id. at p. 27.) The ALJ concluded at the fifth and final step that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of cafeteria attendant and cleaner, all of which are light work with a Specific Vocational Preparation of 2, and exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at p. 28.)

         II. Issues Presented

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by failing to rule on her post hearing objections regarding the reliability of the vocational expert's testimony. (Doc. 11, p. 3.) Specifically, Plaintiff avers that the vocational expert testified that Plaintiff could perform jobs inconsistent with the limitations noted in her RFC and that the ALJ failed to address this inconsistency. Next, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred when he found Plaintiff's migraine headaches to be a “severe impairment, ” yet did not evaluate that condition under the appropriate listing at Step Three. Finally, Plaintiff avers the ALJ erred by failing to include any migraine-related limitation in his RFC finding. (Id. at p. 6.)

         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). ...

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