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Davis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division

March 26, 2018

BARBARA FARR DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          STEPHEN HYLES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) determination, denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security income finding that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and Regulations. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision was in error and seeks review under the relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). All administrative remedies have been exhausted. Both parties filed their written consents for all proceedings to be conducted by the United States Magistrate Judge, including the entry of a final judgment directly appealable to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam). “Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may neither decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.[1] Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must, however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision. Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must be affirmed if substantial evidence supports it. Id.

         The Plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that she is unable to perform her previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001 (11th Cir. 1986). The Plaintiff's burden is a heavy one and is so stringent that it has been described as bordering on the unrealistic. Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1083 (5th Cir. 1981).[2] A Plaintiff seeking Social Security disability benefits must demonstrate that she suffers from an impairment that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a twelve-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In addition to meeting the requirements of these statutes, in order to be eligible for disability payments, a Plaintiff must meet the requirements of the Commissioner's regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority given in the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 et seq.

         Under the Regulations, the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure to determine if a Plaintiff is disabled. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff is working. Id. If not, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff has an impairment which prevents the performance of basic work activities. Id. Second, the Commissioner determines the severity of the Plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments. Id. Third, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff's severe impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the Regulations (the “Listing”). Id. Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity can meet the physical and mental demands of past work. Id. Fifth and finally, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience prevent the performance of any other work. In arriving at a decision, the Commissioner must consider the combined effects of all of the alleged impairments, without regard to whether each, if considered separately, would be disabling. Id. The Commissioner's failure to apply correct legal standards to the evidence is grounds for reversal. Id.

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff Barbara Farr Davis applied for disability insurance benefits on June 10, 2013, alleging she became disabled to work on March 15, 2012. Her application was denied initially on October 4, 2013, and on reconsideration on November 1, 2013. She made a timely written request for an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on November 26, 2013. The hearing was conducted on July 10, 2015. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified, as did an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 21. On October 5, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying her claim. Tr. 18-34. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council on December 3, 2015, but was denied on January 26, 2017. Tr. 15-17, 1-7. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under the Social Security Act, she seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for benefits.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE

         When the ALJ issued his written decision Plaintiff was sixty-three years old. Tr. 44. She has a high school education and past relevant work as a store manager and customer service representative. Tr. 199. In conducting the five-step sequential analysis of Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ found her to have the severe impairment of obesity. Finding 3, Tr. 23. He next determined that her obesity does not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 26. Between steps three and four, the ALJ formulated a residual functional capacity assessment (“RFC”) which permits Plaintiff to engage in medium work with the restriction that she can sit for at least two hours in an eight-hour workday. Finding 5, Tr. 26-28. At step four he determined that within this restricted RFC assessment she can return to her past relevant work as a retail store manager or store employee. Finding 6, Tr. 28. However, after testimony by a VE, the ALJ made alternative step-five findings and found Plaintiff capable of working as a customer service clerk or sales clerk. Tr. 28-29. He therefore found Plaintiff to be not disabled. Finding 7, Tr. 29.

         DISCUSSION

         I. The ALJ's Step-Two Analysis & RFC Formulation

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ “erred by failing to apply the de minimus standard” in his step-two analysis of her claim and further “erred by formulating an RFC which excluded the practical effects of demonstrated impairments.” Pl.'s Br. 3, ECF No. 16. This contention has no merit. At step two the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the severe impairment of obesity, thus finding in her favor and proceeding to subsequent steps in the sequential analysis. When an ALJ recognizes at least one severe impairment and continues to the succeeding steps in the evaluation process, there is no requirement to identify additional impairments at step-two. Tuggerson-Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 572 F. App'x 949, 951-52 (11th Cir. 2014). In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ expressly stated that he “considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted.” Tr. 26. He thoroughly discussed her alleged orthopedic impairments, particularly her assertions of disabling back and leg pain. Tr. 24, 27-28. The ALJ's written decision made facially apparent his consideration of all of Plaintiff's symptoms in assessing her RFC. Any error in not finding these impairments “severe” at step-two is harmless. See Gray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 550 F. App'x 850 (11th Cir. 2013).

         II. The ALJ's ...


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