United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division
NIKISHA O. UNDERWOOD, 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 Supplemental Security
Income (SSI) 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.
Nikisha Underwood applied for supplemental security income
(SSI) on July 3, 2013, alleging that she became disabled to
work on June 8, 2012. She previously filed an application for
benefits on October 13, 2010, but was denied on January 7,
2011. Plaintiff's current claim was initially denied on
December 12, 2013, and denied after reconsideration on
February 12, 2014. She requested an evidentiary hearing
before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on March 5, 2014. A
hearing was held on September 23, 2015. Plaintiff appeared at
the hearing with her attorney and testified, as did an
impartial vocational expert (VE). Tr. 19. On November 30,
2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying
Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 16-34. Plaintiff sought review by
the Appeals Council on December 11, 2015, but was denied on
November 25, 2016. Tr. 14-15, 1-6. Plaintiff has exhausted
the available administrative remedies under the Social
Security Act and seeks judicial review of the
Commissioner's final decision denying her application for
OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE
was thirty-three years old when she filed her current
application for benefits. She has a tenth grade education and
previously worked as a kitchen helper. Tr. 67, 75, 220. To
evaluate Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ conducted the
five-step sequential analysis set forth in the
Commissioner's regulations. At step two the ALJ found
that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative
disc disease, joint disease in the right knee, and adjustment
disorder. Finding 2, Tr. 21-22. At step three, she decided
that Plaintiff's impairments, considered both alone and
in conjunction with one another, neither meet nor medically
equal a listed impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 3, Tr. 22-24. Between steps
three and four, the ALJ formulated a residual functional
capacity assessment (RFC) which permits Plaintiff to engage
in medium work while restricted to manipulating fifty pounds
occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently, walking,
sitting, and standing for six hour durations, and working
with only simple instructions and work-related decisions.
Finding 4, Tr. 24-27. Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff
has no past relevant work at step four, she proceeded to step
five and relied on the VE's testimony that Plaintiff can
work within her restricted RFC as a hand packager, production
helper, and dining room attendant and such jobs are
available-in significant numbers-in the national economy.
Finding 8, Tr. 28. The ALJ therefore found Plaintiff to be
not disabled to work. Findings 9, 10, Tr. 28-29.
The ALJ's Consideration of the Evidence
contends that the ALJ failed to correctly weigh the evidence.
Pl.'s Br. 1. Specifically, she claims the ALJ erred by
giving considerable weight to the opinions of two state
agency reviewing physicians. Id. at 16. Drs. Ruiz
and Corcoran reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and
determined she is capable of medium work with added
limitations. Exs. B2A, B4A, Tr. 27. The ALJ found that these
opinions were consistent with the record as a whole. Tr. 27.
Because the ALJ determined that the opinions of the reviewing
physicians are consistent with the medical evidence, it was
not error to assign them greater weight. State agency
consultants may be afforded great weight ...