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Jones v. Berryhill

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

May 31, 2017

DELOIS JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.

          ORDER AND MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge John G. Farrell (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Farrell”) denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award her benefits. 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.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on October 10, 2012, alleging that she became disabled on May 18, 2012, due to degenerative disc disease, lumbar spine issues, bursitis in her right hip, and diabetic neuropathy. (Doc. 16-2, pp. 28, 30.) After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. On August 13, 2014, ALJ Farrell conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Ken Bennett, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. ALJ Farrell found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). (Id. at p. 11.) 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 June 30, 1958, was fifty-five (55) years old when ALJ Farrell issued his final decision. She has a college education. (Id. at p. 37.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes employment as a school teacher, teacher's aide, and employment specialist. (Id. at p. 16.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. The ALJ's Findings

         Title II of the Act defines “disability” as 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act qualifies the definition of disability as follows:

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to the Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process to determine whether a person meets the definition of disability. 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.” Id. 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, 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 her 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 [her] impairments.” Id. at 693-94 (ellipsis in original) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).[2] 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 May 18, 2012, through the date of ALJ Farrell's decision on September 23, 2014.[3] (Doc. 16-2, p. 13.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, bursitis of the right hip, and 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.[4] (Id.) ALJ Farrell also determined Plaintiff suffers from hypertension, diabetes, left shoulder impingement, and degenerative joint disease of the right knee but concluded these conditions were non-severe impairments. (Id. at p. 14.) 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; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, kneeling, and crawling; no more hazardous machinery and unprotected heights. (Id.) At the next step, ALJ Farrell concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a school teacher, teacher's aide, and employment specialist, as these jobs were not precluded by Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. (Id. at p.16.) Thus, the ALJ did not proceed to the fifth and final step.

         II. ...


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