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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

June 23, 2017

HENRIETTA JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

         Social Security Appeal

          ORDER

          STEPHEN HYLES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) determination, denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits, disabled widow's benefits, and supplemental security income, 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).

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         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.

         ISSUES

         I. Did the ALJ give appropriate weight to Plaintiff's treating physician's records and opinions?

         II. Was it error for the ALJ to omit Plaintiff's need to use a cane from the hypothetical question posed to the VE?

         III. Did the ALJ provide an adequate explanation for his decision to discount Plaintiff's credibility?

         Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff Henrietta Cobbs Johnson filed applications for disability insurance benefits, disabled widow's benefits, and supplemental security income on August 8, 2012 alleging disability to work commencing August 31, 2007. Her applications were denied initially on December 13, 2012 and on reconsideration on March 28, 2013. She filed a written request for an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge on May 28, 2013, and the hearing was conducted on September 9, 2014. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with her attorney and gave testimony, as did an impartial vocational expert (VE). Tr. 12. On October 29, 2014 the ALJ issued an “unfavorable” written decision denying her claims. Tr. 9-29. She filed a request for review by the Appeals Council on December 15, 2014, but was denied on May 12, 2016. Tr. 7-8, 1-6. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner to deny her claims.

         Statement of ...


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