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Allen v. Berryhill

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

September 18, 2017

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 considered all relevant impairments.

         II. Whether the ALJ improperly applied applicable regulations.

         III. Whether the ALJ reasonably discerned the evidence presented.

         Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff Marshell Allen filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on August 29, 2012 alleging that she has been disabled to work since August 16, 2011. Her claims were denied initially on November 7, 2012 and denied on reconsideration on January 24, 2013. She filed a written request for an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on March 13, 2013, and the hearing was conducted on May 5, 2015. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified at the hearing. Tr. 20. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying her claims on May 26, 2015. Tr. 17-42). She next requested review by the Appeals Council on June 1, 2015, but was denied on August 3, 2016. (Tr. 14-16, 1-6). Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review of the Commisioner's final decision to deny her applications for benefits. Her case is ripe for review.

         Plaintiff was fifty-four years of age when the ALJ rendered his unfavorable decision. She attended high school until the eleventh grade and has past relevant work as a medical and appointment clerk and security guard. Tr. 236, 288, 64, 92. The ALJ conducted the five-step sequential analysis of her claims mandated by the Commissioner's regulations and found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of coronary artery disease and mild degenerative joint disease in the right knee. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (2012), 416.920 (2017); (Finding No. 3, Tr. 22). He further found that her impairments of left ankle injury, smoking related asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome and anxiety with dysfunctional disorder are non-severe and detailed the reasons for his conclusion. (Finding No. 4, Tr. 23-27). In his step-three analysis, he concluded that Plaintiff's impairments, considered alone and in combination with one another, do not meet or medically equal the listed impairments set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (2016). (Finding No. 5, Tr. 27-28). Between steps three and four, the ALJ formulated a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment which permits Plaintiff to engage in light work with added exertional, postural and environmental limitations. (Finding No. 6, Tr. 28-35). At step-four he ...

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