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Jarrells v. Berryhill

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

May 3, 2018

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

         Social Security Appeal



         The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) determination, denied Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income finding that he 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).


         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 he is unable to perform his 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 he suffers from an impairment that prevents him 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.


         Plaintiff Sylvester Jarrells filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on October 29, 2013, alleging that he became disabled to work on November 1, 2010. Plaintiff filed that application only two months after a previous application of his was denied by an ALJ on August 28, 2013, following an evidentiary hearing. Tr. 24. Under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.957(c)(1) and 416.1457(c)(1), consideration of subsequent claims of disability are limited to the period after a prior adjudication. Therefore, the earliest date on which Plaintiff could again claim disability to work is August 29, 2013.

         Plaintiff's new claim was denied initially on December 6, 2013, and after reconsideration on February 28, 2014. Tr. 24. On March 21, 2014, Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ in writing. Id. The resulting hearing began on October 23, 2015, but was continued in order to obtain an orthopedic consultative examination which was done on December 2, 2015. Id. The hearing resumed on March 18, 2016. Id. Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified both times, as did impartial vocational experts (“VEs”). Id. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 7, 2016. Tr. 21-39. Plaintiff next sought review by the Appeals Council on April 18, 2016, but was denied on March 1, 2017. Tr. 19-20, 1-6. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to him under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for benefits.


         On the date he filed his application Plaintiff was forty-two years old and classified as a “younger individual.” Tr. 32; see 20 C.F.R. § 416.963; see also 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. He has a high school education and past relevant work as a grass cutter and material handler. Tr. 32. In conducting the required five-step sequential analysis of Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ found at step two that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of post displaced fibula fracture and lumbar degenerative disc disease. Finding 2, Tr. 27; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the ALJ determined that these impairments, considered both alone and in combination with one another, neither met nor medically equaled a listed impairment set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 3, Tr. 27. Between steps three and four he formulated a residual functional capacity assessment (“RFC”) which permits Plaintiff to engage in sedentary work with added exertional limitations. Finding 4, Tr. 27-32. At step four, the ALJ found that this restricted RFC prevents Plaintiff from resuming his past relevant work. Finding 5, Tr. 32. At step five, the ALJ developed testimony from the VE that Plaintiff retained the ability to work as a call out operator, charge account clerk, or dispatcher and that these jobs were available to him in significant numbers in the national economy. Finding 9, Tr. 33. The ALJ therefore found him to be not disabled to work. Finding 10, Tr. 34.


         I. The ALJ's assessment of a treating ...

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