United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division
STEPHEN HYLES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the
Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) determination,
denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance
benefits, finding that she is not disabled within the meaning
of the Social Security Act and Regulations. Plaintiff
contends that the Commissioner's decision 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.
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. 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.
Plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that she is
unable to perform her 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 she
suffers from an impairment that prevents 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.
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.
Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's
limitations in formulating her RFC and in creating a
hypothetical question for the VE.
Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's
Brenda Darlene Smith filed an application for disability
insurance benefits on January 16, 2013, alleging disability
to work commencing September 1, 2012. Her claim was denied
initially on August 27, 2013 and on reconsideration on
November 21, 2013. She filed a written request for an
evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ)
on December 13, 2013, which was conducted on June 18, 2015.
Plaintiff appeared and testified as did a vocational expert
(VE). She was represented by an attorney at the hearing. At
the hearing, she amended her onset of disability date to
October 3, 2014. Tr. 30. The ALJ issued a written decision on
July 17, 2015 denying her claim. Tr. 27-48. On August 31,
2015 Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, but
was denied on September 22, 2015 and denied a second time on
March 2, 2016. Tr. 26, 15-17, 1-7. Having exhausted the
administrative remedies available to her under the Social
Security Act she now brings this action for judicial review
of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security
to deny her claim for disability benefits. This action is
ripe for review.
of Facts and Evidence
date the ALJ issued his unfavorable decision denying her
claim, Plaintiff was forty-nine years old. Tr. 27, 187. She
has a general equivalency diploma and a business college
certificate. Tr. 61, 210. Her previous relevant work is as a
pharmacy technician, cashier, clerk, and bookkeeper. Tr. 42,
90-91. In her application for benefits, Plaintiff asserts
disability due to fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression,
degenerative disc disease, emphysema, and left knee pain. Tr.
conducting the five-step sequential analysis mandated by the
Commissioner's regulations for the evaluation of
disability claims, the ALJ first found that Plaintiff has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended
alleged onset date of October 3, 2014. Finding No. 2, Tr. 32.
Next, he found her to have severe impairments of left knee
chondromalacia, restless legs, irritable bowel syndrome,
diabetes, left hip bursitis, mild spondylosis, and breast
cancer. Pursuant to Social Security Ruling 85-28 he also
found her to have nonsevere impairments of obesity/Level I,
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), anxiety and panic
disorders, and bipolar I disorder. Finding No. 3, Tr. 32-35.
At step three the ALJ determined that these impairments,
considered both alone and in combination with one another, do
not meet or medically equal a listed impairment found in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding No. 4, Tr.
35-36. Between steps three and four the ALJ formulated a
residual functional capacity assessment (RFC) which permits
Plaintiff to engage in a limited range of light work with
certain exertional and environmental ...