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Griffin v. Berryhill

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

January 18, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Larry Jimmy Griffin appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Social Security Insurance (“SSI”) 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 the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED, this civil action be CLOSED, and a final judgment be ENTERED in favor of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on April 8, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 31, 2011. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 193-210. Plaintiff later amended his alleged onset date to August 30, 2012. R. 226. Plaintiff was fifty-four years old on his amended alleged disability onset date and was fifty-eight years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the decision under consideration. R. 49, 227. Plaintiff initially applied for benefits based on allegations of the following conditions: chronic respiratory illness, high blood pressure, asthma, and pneumonia. R. 231. Plaintiff completed a GED, and prior to his alleged disability, Plaintiff had accrued a relevant work history as a parking attendant. R. 83, 232.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications. R. 104-11. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, R. 112-116, and the ALJ held a hearing on February 2, 2016. R. 64-87. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as from Robert Browden, Sr., a Vocational Expert. Id. On March 8, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 39-49.

         Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 30, 2012, the amended alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: asthma, chronic bronchitis, history of nasal polyps with surgical removal, history of pulmonary nodules, status-post left pleural decortication and left lower lobe pulmonary wedge resection, and reduced hearing. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(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, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a);[1] that is further limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; with no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffold; with avoidance of moderate exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation; and with avoidance of concentrated exposure to noise. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a parking attendant. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's RFC (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).

R. 41-48.

         Because the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work, the sequential evaluation process stopped, and the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 30, 2012, through the date of the decision, March 8, 2016. R. 48. When the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-5, 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.


         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 standards were in fact applied, the Court must reverse the decision. Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).


         Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ (1) failed to properly evaluate evidence that Plaintiff's severe impairment, namely his asthma, met or was medically equal to Listing 3.03B; (2) based his decision on medical records from 2009 through 2016, not just 2013 through 2016; (3) improperly characterized his hospital stays between 2013 and 2016 as insignificant; and (4) gave more weight to consultative physician Dr. John Fkiaras than his treating physicians. See doc. no. 14 (“Pl.'s Br.”). Plaintiff further argues the AC erred in refusing to consider the listing form 3.03 he submitted with his appeal. See id. The Commissioner maintains the decision to deny Plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 16 (“Comm'r's Br.”).

         As explained below, the ALJ considered evidence regarding Listing 3.03B and properly concluded Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal it. Moreover, the ALJ appropriately considered Plaintiff's medical records from 2009 through 2013 and properly considered his hospitalizations. In addition, the ALJ's decision to give more weight to consultative physician Dr. Fkiaras than Plaintiff's treating physicians was supported by substantial evidence. Finally, the AC did not err because it did not deny Plaintiff's request for review without considering his newly submitted evidence. Therefore, none of Plaintiff's arguments form a valid basis for reversal or remand.

         A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Evidence and Concluded Plaintiff's Severe Impairment Did Not Meet or Medically Equal Listing 3.03B.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ improperly evaluated the evidence in his determination Plaintiff failed to meet Listing 3.03B. Pl.'s Br. pp. 2-3. As discussed herein, the ALJ determination was supported by substantial evidence and Plaintiff's claim fails.

         1. Step Three ...

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