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Neuleib v. Berryhill

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

October 17, 2017

NANCY A BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

         Social Security Appeal



         The 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).


         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.


         Plaintiff Brian Jason Neuleib filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on November 30, 2012, alleging that he became disabled to work on June 1, 2009. His claims were denied initially on September 24, 2013, and on reconsideration on November 14, 2013. He filed a written request for an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 8, 2014, and the hearing was held on June 25, 2015. Plaintiff appeared with his attorney and gave testimony, as did his mother and an impartial vocational expert (VE). Tr. 19. On August 3, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's applications. Tr. 16-35. He sought review from the Appeals Council on August 13, 2015, but was denied on November 9, 2016. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to him under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner to deny his claims. This case is ripe for review.


         Plaintiff was thirty-three years old on his alleged onset of disability date. Tr. 16, 98. He has a general equivalency diploma and prior work experience as a laborer, in sales, and as a graphic designer. Tr. 93, 236, 238. In his applications he alleged that he is disabled to work as a result of depression, bipolar disorder, learning disability, skin rash, and obesity. Tr. 237, 285.

         In conducting the five-step sequential evaluation process for deciding whether Plaintiff is disabled, the ALJ found, at step two, that Plaintiff has the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Finding 3, Tr. 21. The ALJ specifically analyzed Plaintiff's asserted depression and learning disability and found them to be non-medically determinable. Plaintiff never alleged disability due to Asperger's Syndrome and denied to a consultative psychologist that he had ever received such a diagnosis. However, the ALJ discussed it in his written decision because Plaintiff's parents told the consultant that he had been diagnosed with the disorder at an unspecified date between twenty-four and twenty-six years of age. The ALJ found the alleged Asperger's diagnosis to also be a non-medically determinable impairment. He also considered Plaintiff's obesity but found it to be a non-severe impairment. Tr. 21-22. The ALJ completed his step two analysis by stating he had considered all of Plaintiff's symptoms and limitations in formulating Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). Tr. 22.

         At step three, he found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 22-23. Between steps three and four the ALJ formulated an RFC assessment which permits Plaintiff to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels but with restrictions to simple work with routine, repetitive tasks and no fast-paced production. He further limited Plaintiff to jobs with simple instructions and decisions as well as minor and infrequent changes in the work process and no more than occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors for no more than one-third of the work day. Finding 5, Tr. 24-29.

         At step four, the ALJ found that this restricted RFC would not permit Plaintiff to return to any past relevant work. Finding 6, Tr. 29. However, the VE testified that there are jobs available to Plaintiff which he can do within his RFC. The ALJ then found, at step five, that he can work as a golf range attendant, sexton, or return goods sorter and that such jobs exist both in the national economy and in the ...

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