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Jenkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

March 7, 2018

TYRAH JENKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.[1]

          ORDER AND OPINION [2]

          ALAN J. BAVERMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tyrah Jenkins (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act.[3] For the reasons below, the undersigned REVERSES the final decision of the Commissioner AND REMANDS the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on October 30, 2008, alleging disability commencing on June 1, 2004. [Record (hereinafter “R”) 23, 134-47; Doc. 10 at 1[4]; Doc. 13 at 1]. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. [See R70-73]. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [R94]. An evidentiary hearing was held on July 26, 2010. [R40-66]. The ALJ issued a decision on February 22, 2011, denying Plaintiff's application on the ground that she had not been under a “disability” at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. [R23-34]. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 20, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [R10-15]. Plaintiff then filed an action in this Court in September 2012, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Jenkins v. Colvin, Civ. Action No. 1:12-cv-3355-ECS (N.D.Ga.), ECF Nos. 1-3. After Plaintiff filed her initial brief, the Commissioner filed a consent motion under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to enter a judgment with a reversal and remand of the cause to the Commissioner for further proceedings and issuance of a new decision. Id., ECF No. 11 (May 1, 2013). On May 28, 2013, the Court granted the motion and entered an Order reversing the decision under sentence four, remanding the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings, and specifying that upon remand, the Commissioner was to instruct the ALJ to further develop the record and obtain testimony from a vocational expert. Id., ECF No. 12.

         Pursuant to the Order entered by the District Court, the Appeals Council directed the Commissioner to offer Plaintiff a new hearing, address evidence that was submitted to the Appeals Council, take any action needed to complete the administrative record, and issue a new decision. [R514-16]. A second evidentiary hearing was held on February 19, 2015, before a different ALJ. [R460-511]. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 4, 2015, denying Plaintiff's application on the ground that she had not been under a “disability” at any time from the onset date through the date of the decision because she was able to perform past relevant work as it is generally performed. [R440-59]. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 25, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [R432-39].

         Plaintiff then initiated the present action in this Court in August 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's most recent decision. [Docs. 1-3]. The answer and transcript were filed on December 12, 2016. [See Docs. 6, 7]. On January 10, 2017, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her petition for review of the Commissioner's decision, [Doc. 10]; on March 10, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response in support of the decision, [Doc. 13][5]; and on March 21, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply brief in support of her petition, [Doc. 14]. The matter is now before the Court upon the administrative record, the parties' pleadings, and the parties' briefs, and it is accordingly ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).[6]

         II. STANDARD FOR DETERMINING DISABILITY

         An individual is considered disabled for purposes of disability benefits if he is unable 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment or impairments must result from anatomical, psychological, or physiological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques and must be of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)-(3), 1382c(a)(3)(B), (D).

         The burden of proof in a Social Security disability case is divided between the claimant and the Commissioner. The claimant bears the primary burden of establishing the existence of a “disability” and therefore entitlement to disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a), 416.912(a). The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to determine whether the claimant has met the burden of proving disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001); Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). The claimant must prove at step one that he is not undertaking substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the claimant must prove that he is suffering from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work-related activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At step three, if the impairment meets one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404 (Listing of Impairments), the claimant will be considered disabled without consideration of age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). At step four, if the claimant is unable to prove the existence of a listed impairment, he must prove that his impairment prevents performance of past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, the regulations direct the Commissioner to consider the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether the claimant can perform other work besides past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). The Commissioner must produce evidence that there is other work available in the national economy that the claimant has the capacity to perform. Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278 n.2. To be considered disabled, the claimant must prove an inability to perform the jobs that the Commissioner lists. Id.

         If at any step in the sequence a claimant can be found disabled or not disabled, the sequential evaluation ceases and further inquiry ends. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Despite the shifting of burdens at step five, the overall burden rests on the claimant to prove that he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278 n.2; Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds by 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5), as recognized in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. SCOPE OF JUDICIAL REVIEW

         A limited scope of judicial review applies to a denial of Social Security benefits by the Commissioner. Judicial review of the administrative decision addresses three questions: (1) whether the proper legal standards were applied; (2) whether there was substantial evidence to support the findings of fact; and (3) whether the findings of fact resolved the crucial issues. Washington v. Astrue, 558 F.Supp.2d 1287, 1296 (N.D.Ga. 2008); Fields v. Harris, 498 F.Supp. 478, 488 (N.D.Ga. 1980). This Court may not decide the 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). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and the Commissioner applies the proper legal standards, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997); Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam); Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         “Substantial evidence” means “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, and it must be enough to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Hillsman, 804 F.2d at 1180; Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [the Court] must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam). Even where there is substantial evidence to the contrary of the ALJ's findings, the ALJ decision will not be overturned where “there is substantially supportive evidence” of the ALJ's decision. Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). In contrast, review of the ALJ's application of legal principles is plenary. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1558 (11th Cir. 1995); Walker, 826 F.2d at 999.

         IV. ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION[7]

         Plaintiff was born on August 21, 1979, and therefore was thirty-five years old at the time the ALJ issued the second adverse decision. [R156, 453]. She alleges disability due to schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, severe depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), generalized anxiety disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. [R160, 466].

         Plaintiff reports that her mental impairments cause her to experience auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and paranoia, and that she has been seeing doctors since she was a teenager. [R268, 282, 353, 472]. She indicates that she has been terminated from multiple jobs due to her hallucinations and fighting with coworkers and bosses, [R44, 392], and that she had been expelled from school for fighting and went to an alternative school, [R472]. She indicates that she spends most of her day alone in her room sleeping due to her medications. [R58, 489, 498]. She also testifies that she does not cook, vacuum, or do laundry, and she breaks dishes when she washes them. [R486-89]. She states that she watches the news on television and shops with her mother but that she does not shop alone because she hears voices and sees things and it becomes overwhelming. [R490, 491, 494]. She indicates that she drives about once a month. [R491]. She reports that she sees her mother, stepfather, children, and boyfriend, but does not have any other friends or socialize with other family members. [R58, 493, 500-01].

         Plaintiff reports that although she takes the medication prescribed by her psychiatrist, she continues to experience auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoid thinking, and bizarre perceptual thoughts, like seeing dead people walking around, thinking someone will kill or hurt her, and constantly thinking in detail about how she, her mother, and her kids would die. [R497-98]. She continues to be paranoid and to see things that are not there and to hear voices and sounds on a daily basis. [R497-98, 501-02]. She testifies that although she takes her medication every day and night, her condition is still like a roller coaster: she will have a month or two when she feels better-she still sees and hears things and has panic attacks and paranoia, but it is not as intense-and then her condition will worsen again. [R496-97, 501-03].

         In the decision issued after the second hearing, the ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2007.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: schizoaffective disorder, cocaine abuse, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and borderline intellectual ...

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