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Wood v. Berryhill

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

January 26, 2018

KATHY ANN WOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          BRIAN K. EFPS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Kathy Ann Wood appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“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 May 8, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of May 15, 2007. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 185, 192. At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified her alleged onset date was “around the end of 2010, ” (R. 42), but the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) ultimately used the May 15, 2007 date in his written decision, (R. 17). Plaintiff's last insured date for DIB was March 31, 2012. R. 199, 206. Plaintiff was fifty years old on May 15, 2007, was fifty-three years old at the end of 2010, and was fifty-nine years old at the time the ALJ issued the decision under consideration. R. 38, 206, 282. Plaintiff claimed she was disabled due to intramural fibroids, female problems, back pain, and high blood pressure. R. 72, 210. Plaintiff completed two years of college, and prior to her alleged disability, Plaintiff had accrued a relevant work history as a customer service representative and cashier. R. 44-45, 58, 211, 217.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 62-105. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, (R. 128-29), and the ALJ held a hearing on July 19, 2016. R. 35-61. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who appeared with a non-attorney representative, as well as from Tina Baker-Ivey, a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. On September 12, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 12-31.

         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 May 15, 2007, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.), and she meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2012.
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: spine disorders (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 in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).[1] The claimant can reach overhead with the right upper extremity on a frequent basis. The claimant can frequently climb stairs, stoop, crouch, and crawl. The claimant should never climb ladders and she should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a customer service representative and cashier. 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. 17-25.

         Because the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her 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 May 15, 2007, through the date of the decision, September 12, 2016. R. 26. When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, 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. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by (1) failing to award benefits even though he determined Plaintiff had a severe impairment at step two of the sequential evaluation process; and, (2) failing to explain what Listing he considered at step three of the sequential evaluation process. See doc. no. 15 (“Pl.'s Br.”). The Commissioner contends “Plaintiff's argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding” of the sequential evaluation process and maintains the administrative decision is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 16.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 that judicial review of the Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to the 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).

         III. ...


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