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Smith v. Berryhill

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

June 6, 2017

BRENDA D SMITH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         The 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. § 636(c)(3).


         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 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).[2] 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.

         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.


         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's limitations in formulating her RFC and in creating a hypothetical question for the VE.

         II. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility.

         Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff 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.

         Statement of Facts and Evidence

         On the 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. 209.

         In 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 ...

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