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Sanders v. Berryhill

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

November 9, 2017

ALISHA SANDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

         Social Security Appeal

          ORDER

          STEPHEN HYLES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The 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. § 636(c)(3).

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         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.

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff 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.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE

         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         At step 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.

         At step 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 ...


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