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Pooler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Dublin Division

January 17, 2018

LEROY POOLER, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Leroy Pooler, Jr., appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act. Upon consideration of the briefs submitted by both parties, the record evidence, and the relevant statutory and case law, the Court REPORTS and RECOMMENDS pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and the case be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in March of 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 13, 2011. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 164-66. Plaintiff's last insured date for purposes of the DIB application is December 31, 2016. R. 164, 186. Plaintiff was forty-two years old on his alleged disability onset date. Plaintiff applied for benefits based on allegations of cardiomyopathy and high cholesterol. R. 168. Plaintiff has a twelfth grade education, and, prior to his alleged disability, Plaintiff had accrued relevant work history as a sales manager in a furniture store. R. 168-69.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially, R. 82, and on reconsideration, R. 87. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), R. 91, and the ALJ held a hearing on February 3, 2015. R. 32-55. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as from Roger S. Decker, a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. On May 8, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 12-26.

         Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 13, 2011, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: sciatica, degenerative disc disease, cardiac problems, cardiomyopathy with ablation, and high blood pressure (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).
4. The claimant has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) with exceptions.[1] The claimant would need [the] opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing up to once every 1/2 hour while continuing to work. He can stand and walk two hours out of eight hours. He can lift and carry a maximum of 10 pounds. There should be no use of foot controls. He can only occasionally climb, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl. There should be no work on ladders, ropes, scaffolds, or at unprotected heights. Thus, the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).

R. 13-21.

         When the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-3, the Commissioner's decision became “final” for the purpose of judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff then filed this civil action requesting reversal or remand of that adverse decision. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in: (1) failing to find Plaintiff's obesity was a severe impairment; (2) failing to address Plaintiff's obesity in developing his RFC; (3) giving the opinion of Dr. Kristen Hampton, Plaintiff's treating physician, little weight; and (4) finding Plaintiff not credible. See doc. no. 8 (“Pl.'s Br.”). The Commissioner maintains the decision to deny Plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 11 (“Comm'r's Br.”).


         Judicial review of social security cases is narrow and limited to the following questions: (1) whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). When considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). Notwithstanding this measure of deference, the Court remains obligated to scrutinize the whole record to determine whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         The Commissioner's factual findings should be affirmed if there is substantial evidence to support them. Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance: ‘[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If the Court finds substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's factual findings, it must uphold the Commissioner even if the evidence preponderates in favor of the claimant. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004). Finally, the Commissioner's findings of fact must be grounded in the entire record; a decision that focuses on one aspect of the evidence and disregards other contrary evidence is not based upon substantial evidence. McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1548 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The deference accorded the Commissioner's findings of fact does not extend to her conclusions of law, which enjoy no presumption of validity. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding judicial review of Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to substantial evidence standard). If the Commissioner fails either to apply correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with the means to determine whether correct legal ...

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