United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division
STEPHEN HYLES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the
Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) determination,
denied Plaintiff's applications for a period of
disability, disability insurance 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.
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.
Alisha Sanders filed applications for a period of disability,
disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security
Income (SSI) on January 11, 2013, alleging that she became
disabled on January 1, 1998. Tr. 168-83. Plaintiff's
claims were first denied by the agency on May 24, 2013, and
upon reconsideration on July 25, 2013. Tr. 112, 121.
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law
judge (ALJ) which was held on May 11, 2015, via video
conference. Tr. 35-50. At the hearing, Plaintiff appeared
with her attorney and testified; as did a neutral vocational
expert (VE). Tr. 38, 47. On May 26, 2015, the ALJ issued his
decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 17-30.
Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council, but that
request was denied on September 25, 2016. Tr. 1-6. Having
exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under
the Social Security Act, Plaintiff now seeks judicial review
of the Commissioner's final decision denying her various
claims to benefits. This case is ripe for review.
OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE
alleges that the onset of her disability occurred when she
was nine years old; she was twenty-seven years old at the
time of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 30, 168. Plaintiff
finished high school but has not completed any higher
education degree programs. Tr. 195. She has no past relevant
work experience. Tr. 47, 195. In her applications, Plaintiff
alleges that she is disabled to work due to bipolar disorder,
scoliosis, chronic back pain, hip problems, knee problems,
anxiety, and depression. Tr. 37, 38, 194, 212, 219.
performed the mandated five-step sequential evaluation
process to assess the Plaintiff's claims. Tr. 20-30; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(c). At step one, the
ALJ determined Plaintiff's prior employment “did
not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.”
Tr. 22, Finding 2. The ALJ based this finding on the fact
that, although Plaintiff had prior work experience, her
earnings from those positions never exceeded the requisite
levels for classification as substantial gainful activity. In
his step-two analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the
severe impairments of obesity, bipolar disorder, and
generalized anxiety disorder. Tr. 22, Finding 3.
three, the ALJ found that Petitioner does not have any
impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or
equals the severity of those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 23, Finding 4. Before moving to
step four, and after considering all of Plaintiff's
symptoms and limitations, the ALJ formulated a residual
functional capacity (RFC). Tr. 24. The RFC permits Plaintiff
to perform light work, as defined in the regulations, but
limits her to unskilled and non-customer service work. Tr.
24, Finding 5.
four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's lack of previous
relevant work rendered analysis of transferability of job
skills “not an issue.” Tr. 29, Finding 9.
However, at Plaintiff's hearing before the ALJ the VE
testified that there are jobs available to Plaintiff within
her RFC that she can do. At step five, the ALJ-citing the
VE's testimony-found that there are jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff
can perform. Tr. 29, Finding 10. These ...