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Townsend v. Berryhill

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

February 23, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge Morton Gold (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Gold”) denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision. Defendant asserts the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision. I also RECOMMEND that the Court DIRECT the Clerk of Court to CLOSE this case and enter the appropriate judgment of dismissal.


         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on December 20, 2012, alleging that she became disabled on May 15, 2012, due to degenerative bone disease, advance stage osteoarthritis, anxiety, and muscular degeneration. (Doc. 11, p. 1; Doc. 7-3, p. 34; Doc. 7-6, p. 6.) After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing.[2] On February 26, 2015, ALJ Gold conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Mark Leaptrot, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. ALJ Gold found that Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) from May 15, 2010, through April 25, 2013. However, ALJ Gold also found Plaintiff's disability ended on April 26, 2013, due to medical improvement related to the ability to work and that Plaintiff was able to perform substantial gainful activity from April 26, 2013, through the date of his decision. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 34-35.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review. (Doc. 7-2, p. 2.)

         Plaintiff, born on July 21, 1964, was fifty (50) years old when ALJ Gold issued his final decision. (Doc. 7-5, p. 2.) She has a high school education and certified nursing assistant training. (Doc. 7-6, p. 7.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes employment in auto parts and convenience stores, as an apparel manager in a retail store, and at a golf course. (Id.)


         I. The ALJ's Findings

         Title II of the Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act qualifies the definition of disability as follows:

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to the Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process to determine whether a person meets the definition of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

         The first step determines if the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then benefits are immediately denied. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in such activity, then the second inquiry is whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. at 140-41. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is severe, then the evaluation proceeds to step three. The third step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations and acknowledged by the Commissioner as sufficiently severe to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) & 416.920(d); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P. App. 1; Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the plaintiff is presumed disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         If the impairment does not meet or equal one of the listed impairments, the sequential evaluation proceeds to the fourth step to determine if the impairment precludes the claimant from performing past relevant work, i.e., whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work. Id.; Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 503 F. App'x 692, 693 (11th Cir. 2013). A claimant's residual functional capacity “is an assessment . . . of the claimant's remaining ability to do work despite [her] impairments.” Id. at 693-94 (ellipsis in original) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).[3] If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the final step of the evaluation process determines whether she is able to make adjustments to other work in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1239. Disability benefits will be awarded only if the claimant is unable to perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142.

         In the instant case, the ALJ followed this sequential process to determine that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of May 15, 2010, through the date of ALJ Gold's decision on April 25, 2015. (Doc. 7-3, p. 37.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had bilateral hip replacement surgical residuals exacerbated by obesity and anxiety, conditions considered “severe” under the Regulations. (Id.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was under a disability from May 15, 2010, through April 25, 2013, as her severe impairments significantly limited Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities, and she met the requirements of Listing 1.02A (major dysfunction of a weight-bearing joint). (Id. & at p. 38.) At Step Three, ALJ Gold found that, beginning on April 26, 2013, Plaintiff's impairments (which were the same as were present during Plaintiff's period of disability) did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment, either singly or in combination. (Id. at p. 39.) Instead, the ALJ determined medical improvement occurred as of April 26, 2013, such that Plaintiff's disability ended. (Id. at p. 40.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity, beginning April 26, 2013, through the date of his decision, to perform work at the light exertional level, with the following exceptions: no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; individually sitting, standing, walking, pushing and/or pulling for at least six hours of an eight-hour workday; occasional (up to one-third of an eight-hour workday) lifting or carrying of 20 pounds and 10 pounds frequently (two-thirds of an eight-hour workday); individually climbing ramps/stairs, kneeling, crouching, and crawling for no more than one-third of an eight-hour workday; and avoidance of concentrated exposure to extreme vibration that might exacerbate her hip pain problems. (Id. at p. 41.) ALJ Gold noted Plaintiff's anxiety limited her to performing work with a specific vocational preparation of 1-4, and he also noted that, although Plaintiff's concentration could be intermittently disrupted by up to one-third of an eight-hour workday at a skilled level, she could pay enough attention to details to meet the general productivity requirements of a job within the same workday, if the work is “simple, repetitive, routine, boring or detailed in nature.” (Id.) The ALJ further noted Plaintiff could perform assigned tasks by the end of the same workday, even though her pace could be disrupted once or twice a week. At the next step, ALJ Gold concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a cashier, as this job was not precluded by Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. (Id. at p. 45.) Thus, the ALJ did not proceed to the fifth and final step.

         II. Issues Presented

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by improperly discounting the opinion of her treating physician. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ erred by improperly assessing her subjective complaints of pain and her credibility. Further, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ's finding that she had the residual functional capacity to return to her past relevant work is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 11, pp. 14-26.)

         III. Standard of Review

         It is well-established that judicial review of social security cases is limited to questions of whether the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by “substantial evidence, ” and whether the Commissioner has applied appropriate legal standards. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A reviewing court does not “decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence or substitute” its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). ...

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