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Nettles v. Berryhill

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

February 23, 2018

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



         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge John R. Mason (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Mason”) denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for a new hearing. Defendant asserts that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision and DIRECT the Clerk of Court to CLOSE this case and enter the appropriate judgment of dismissal.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on July 31, 2012, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2007, due to “stroke, difficulty balancing, hip problems, high blood pressure, [and] depression.” (Doc. 10-3, pp. 2.) After his claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. On May 29, 2015, ALJ Mason conducted a hearing in Savannah, Georgia, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Doc. 10-2, p. 13.) James Waddington, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. (Id.) ALJ Mason found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 301, et seq. (“the Act”). 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. 10-2, pp. 2-4.)

         Plaintiff, born on March 9, 1980, was thirty-five (35) years old when ALJ Mason rendered his decision. (Doc. 10-2, p. 23.) Plaintiff completed the ninth grade and does not have a General Equivalency Diploma (“GED”). (Doc. 10-2, p. 34.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience involved construction. (Doc. 10-2, pp. 40-41; Doc. 10-6, pp. 41-44.)


         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 his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his 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 is disabled. 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.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140. 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 as defined by the “severity regulation.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is considered 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 (“the 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. At Step Four, a determination is made as to whether the impairment precludes the claimant from performing past relevant work, i.e., whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform 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 his impairments.” Id. at 693-94 (ellipsis in original) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)). If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, the final step of the evaluation process determines whether he is able to make adjustments to other work in the national economy, considering his 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 since July 31, 2012, the application date. (Doc. 10-2, p. 15.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following conditions considered “severe” under the “severity regulation, ” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c): history of a cerebrovascular accident; coronary artery disease and status post myocardial infarction; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; dementia; a cognitive disorder; and history of substance abuse. (Id.) At the next step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment under the Regulations. (Id. at pp. 15-17.) ALJ Mason found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, except he cannot engage in constant reaching or overhead reaching with the left upper extremity and is limited to repetitive, short cycle work. (Id. at p. 17.) Additionally, the ALJ limited Plaintiff from working in environments with concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, gases, and poor ventilation and to avoid unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. (Id.) At Step Four, ALJ Mason noted Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work in construction. (Id. at p. 21.) However, the ALJ concluded at the fifth and final step that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of semiconductor assembler, surveillance systems monitor, and credit reference clerk, all of which are sedentary jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at p. 22.)

         II. Issues Presented

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly consider whether he met the criteria for Listing 12.05C for intellectual disability. (Doc. 12, pp. 8-9.) Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ failed to incorporate his mental limitations within the RFC. (Id. at pp. 7-8.) Finally, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to calculate Plaintiff's work capacity under a regional standard. (Id. at p. 10.)

         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). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's factual findings, the court must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         However, substantial evidence must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be proved. The evidence relied upon must be relevant evidence which a reasonable mind would find adequate to support a conclusion. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). The substantial evidence standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence. Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210. In its review, the court must also determine whether the ALJ or Commissioner applied appropriate legal standards. Failure ...

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