United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division
BENNY HARRIS, JR. Plaintiff,
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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 and supplemental security income, finding that he 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).
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.
Benny J. Harris filed applications for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on April 10, 2013,
alleging that he became disabled to work on December 8, 2011.
His claims were denied initially on October 15, 2013, and
again after reconsideration on February 10, 2014. On March 6,
2014, he made a timely request for an evidentiary hearing
before an administrative law judge (ALJ) as provided for in
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.929 et seq and 416.1429
et seq. The hearing was conducted on March 16, 2015.
Plaintiff appeared with counsel and gave testimony as did an
impartial vocational expert (VE). Tr. 14. The ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision on April 22, 2015, denying his claims.
Tr. 11-30. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council but
was denied on September 26, 2016. (Tr. 8-10, 1-7). Plaintiff
has exhausted the administrative remedies available to him
under the Social Security Act and now seeks judicial review
of the Commissioner's final decision to deny his
applications for benefits. This case is ripe for judicial
OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE
alleges he became disabled when he was forty-seven years old.
He completed high school and has past relevant work as a
cashier and fast food worker. Tr. 201, 206-11. In his
applications he claimed that back pain, schizophrenia, and
major depression are the causes of his disability. Tr. 38-59,
200. The ALJ conducted the five- step sequential analysis of
disability claims set out in the Commissioner's
regulations. At step two, he found that Plaintiff has
“severe” impairments of lumbar degenerative disc
disease, hypertension, unstable angina, depression, anxiety,
and history of marijuana abuse. Finding No. 3; Tr.16. At step
three, he established that Plaintiff's impairments,
considered alone and in combination with one another, neither
match nor medically equal any listed impairment in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding No. 4; Tr. 16-18.
Between steps three and four, the ALJ formulated a residual
functional capacity (RFC) assessment which allows Plaintiff
to perform light work with both exertional and non-exertional
restrictions. Finding No. 5, Tr. 18-24. In his step-four
analysis, the ALJ found that this restricted RFC assessment
prevents Plaintiff from returning to any of his past relevant
work. Finding No. 6; Tr. 24-25. After eliciting testimony
from an impartial VE, the ALJ found, at step five, that
Plaintiff has jobs available to him that he can perform
despite his impairments. The ALJ therefore found Plaintiff
not disabled. Finding Nos. 10 and 11; Tr. 25-26.
framed in a convoluted manner, Plaintiff raises a number of
issues in this action. His first assertion groups sundry
errors of mischaracterization of evidence, side effects of
medication, incomplete hypothetical questions to the VE and
improper consideration of subjective complaints. Next, he
further clusters failure to give proper weight to a
psychiatrist's opinion, presumptive disability at step
three, and error by the Appeals Council. Third, Plaintiff
claims that the ALJ found him to have the severe impairment
of marijuana abuse despite a complete dearth of evidence to
prove it, and despite his repeated denials of use of illegal
substances when routinely asked by health care providers at
clinical presentations. Plaintiff contends that this
unsupported finding shows ALJ bias. Only this third error has
merit, although not in the exact manner he raises it.
has a duty to develop a record that considers all medical
evidence and to explain the weight he assigns to that
evidence. This must be done in a manner that permits a court
to conduct meaningful judicial review of the final decision
by the Commissioner. Henry v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec.,802 F.3d 1264, 1265 (11th Cir. 2015). The
ALJ's decision here has an evidentiary gap that prevents
a full, fair and impartial assessment of Plaintiff's
claims on the evidence as a whole and is “unfair and
clearly prejudicial.” Id. at 1270. Remand is
therefore required in order for the Commissioner to meet her
duty to investigate all relevant facts and issue a decision
that is based on evidence, substantial evidence, and
nothing more. On remand, the ALJ shall develop a full and
fair record. Todd v. Heckler,736 F.2d 641, 642
(11th Cir. 1984). He must do so ...