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Jackson v. Berryhill

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

April 18, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Melvin Jackson appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Social Security Insurance (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. Upon consideration of the briefs submitted by both parties, the record evidence, and the relevant statutory and case law, the Court REPORTS and RECOMMENDS the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED, this civil action be CLOSED, and a final judgment be ENTERED in favor of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on May 12, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of November 27, 2012. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 270-71. Plaintiff was thirty-six years old on his alleged disability onset date and forty years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the decision under consideration. R. 39, 80. Plaintiff initially applied for benefits based on allegations of a back injury. R. 80, 89, 98. Plaintiff completed ninth grade, and prior to his alleged disability, Plaintiff had accrued a relevant work history as a construction laborer, fast food cook, and dishwasher. R. 37, 295, 303-10.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 80-123, 125-147. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, R. 165-66, and the ALJ held a hearing on August 9, 2016. R. 47-79. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as from Joel Greenberg, a Vocational Expert. Id. On October 26, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 22-39.

         Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 27, 2012, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: asthma, lumbar degenerative disc, obstructive sleep apnea, cervical degenerative disc disease, and major depressive disorder. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), [1] except occasional ladders, ropes and scaffolds; occasional balance; occasional stooping; the individual would be limited to frequent all other posturals [sic]; would need to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards and pulmonary irritants; would be limited to one to two step tasks; off task approximately 5% of the day with low stress work defined as occasional changes and occasional decision making; would need to use a cane for prolonged ambulation and uneven terrain; would need to alternate positions at will and that would occur approximately every 30 minutes; the claimant would be able to stay on task while alternating positions. Thus, the claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).
5. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, including ampoule sealer, touch up screener, and final assembler (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)). Therefore, the claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 27, 2012, through October 26, 2016 (the date of the ALJ's decision) (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

R. 26-38.

         When the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-6, the Commissioner's decision became “final” for the purpose of judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff then filed this civil action requesting reversal or remand of that adverse decision.


         Judicial review of social security cases is narrow and limited to the following questions: (1) whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). When considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). Notwithstanding this measure of deference, the Court remains obligated to scrutinize the whole record to determine whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         The Commissioner's factual findings should be affirmed if there is substantial evidence to support them. Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance: ‘[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If the Court finds substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's factual findings, it must uphold the Commissioner even if the evidence preponderates in favor of the claimant. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004). Finally, the Commissioner's findings of fact must be grounded in the entire record; a decision that focuses on one aspect of the evidence and disregards other contrary evidence is not based upon substantial evidence. McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1548 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The deference accorded the Commissioner's findings of fact does not extend to her conclusions of law, which enjoy no presumption of validity. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding judicial review of Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to substantial evidence standard). If the Commissioner fails either to apply correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with the means to determine whether correct legal standards were in fact applied, the Court must reverse the decision. Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).


         Plaintiff argues the ALJ improperly weighed Plaintiff's credibility regarding his subjective complaints in formulating Plaintiff's RFC because (1) the ALJ did not specify which subjective allegations were contrary to which specific evidence; (2) the medical evidence supported Plaintiff's subjective limitations; and (2) the ALJ failed to explain how Plaintiff's minimal daily activities conflicted with his subjective limitations. See generally (Pl.'s Br., doc. no. 10; Pl.'s Rep., doc. no. 13). As explained below, the ALJ sufficiently stated the reasons she did not find Plaintiff's subjective complaints completely credible in formulating ...

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