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Laster v. Berryhill

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

August 30, 2017

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



         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge Robert Droker (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Droker”) denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award him 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.


         Plaintiff protectively filed for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on August 13, 2010, initially alleging disability beginning January 31, 2008. (Doc. 11, pp. 149-54; Doc. 11-1, p. 19.) The state disability determination service denied Plaintiff's application. (Doc. 11, pp. 78-86; 88-90.) Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to January 1, 2010, (doc. 11-2, p. 151), and an Administrative Law Judge denied his application after a hearing, (id. at pp. 82-94). The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision and remanded Plaintiff's claim for further consideration. (Id. at pp. 95-99.) The ALJ held a supplemental hearing and issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim, (doc. 11-5, pp. 5-19), which the Appeals Council again remanded, (id. at pp. 23-25). After a second supplemental hearing, ALJ Droker denied Plaintiff's claim on June 5, 2015. (Doc. 11, pp. 27-59.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at pp. 13- 16.)

         Plaintiff, born on July 16, 1964, was fifty (50) years old when ALJ Droker issued his final decision. (Id. at p. 149.) He has a tenth grade education. (Doc. 11-6, p. 54.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes employment as a clearing supervisor and heavy equipment operator. (Doc. 11, p. 57.)


         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 his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his 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 his 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 his 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, ALJ Droker followed this sequential process to determine that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of January 1, 2010, through the date of ALJ Droker's decision on June 5, 2015. (Doc. 11, p. 32.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, obesity, hypertension, lumbar degenerative disc disease, vision impairment, right elbow epicondylitis, and right knee impairment, conditions considered “severe” under the Regulations.[3](Id.) However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.[4] (Id. at p. 36.) ALJ Droker found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity, through the date of his decision, to perform work at the light to require that a claimant's previous work to be “substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” in order to disqualify the claimant from receiving benefits. Barnhart, 540 U.S. at 23. The Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit and held that the SSA reasonably interpreted the phrase “substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” to only modify “other” work (i.e., work other than the claimant's previous work). Id. In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court afforded deference to SSA's statutory interpretation pursuant to Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984). Id. at 26-29. The soundness of Chevron deference has been repeatedly questioned. See, e.g., Michigan v. EPA, U.S., 135 S.Ct. 2699, 2712-14 (June 29, 2015) (Thomas, J., concurring). However, the doctrine still stands as binding precedent that this Court must follow. Moreover, the Supreme Court's decision in Barnhart rested on textual rules of statutory interpretation, including the “rule of the last antecedent.” 540 U.S. at 26-28. Thus, it appears that, even without resorting to atextual rules of construction, including Chevron deference, the SSA's five-step process comports with Congress' definition of disability. exertional level, with the following exceptions: plaintiff needs a sit/stand option; needs to avoid ladders or unprotected heights; needs to avoid the operation of heavy, moving machinery; can occasionally bend, crouch, kneel, or stoop; needs to avoid squatting or crawling; needs good lighting; and needs to avoid the operation of foot controls. (Id.) At the next step, ALJ Droker concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a clearing supervisor and heavy equipment operator. (Id. at p. 57.) The ALJ concluded at the fifth and final step that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of cashier II, ticket seller, addresser, and call out operator, all of which are light, unskilled jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at p. 58.)

         II. Issue Presented

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and credibility determinations are not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 13, p. 1.) Specifically, as to the RFC determination, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by relying solely upon the opinion of a non-examining physician.

         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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