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Shanks v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

March 15, 2018

JESSICA SHANKS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.[1]

          ORDER AND OPINION [2]

          ALAN J. BAVEKMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jessica Shanks (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 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 Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act.[3] For the reasons below, the undersigned AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on July 20, 2012, alleging disability commencing on September 30, 2011. [Record (hereinafter “R”) 213]. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. [See R101-08]. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [R109-11]. An evidentiary hearing was held on July 22, 2014. [R31-67]. The ALJ issued a decision on September 19, 2014, denying Plaintiff's application on the ground that she had not been under a “disability” from the application date through the date of the decision. [R17-28]. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council (“AC”), and the AC accepted Plaintiff's request for review and denied Plaintiff's application for benefits on July 28, 2016, making the AC's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.[4] [R4-12].

         Plaintiff then initiated her action in this Court on January 23, 2017, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. [Doc. 1]. The answer and transcript were filed on May 31, 2017. [See Docs. 6, 7]. On August 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her petition for review of the Commissioner's decision, [Doc. 11], and on September 1, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response in support of the decision, [Doc. 12].[5] 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. § 1383(c)(3).

         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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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 wor k ex perience. See 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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

         The Commissioner made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 20, 2012, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, cerebral palsy, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder [(“PTSD”)], schizoaffective disorder, ...

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