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Taylor v. Berryhill

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

May 25, 2018

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



         Plaintiff contests the decision of Administrative Law Judge Geoffrey Casher (“the ALJ” or “ALJ Casher”) denying her claim for Supplement Security Income. Plaintiff urges the Court to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision. Defendant asserts the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision. I also RECOMMEND that the Court DIRECT the Clerk of Court to CLOSE this case and enter the appropriate judgment of dismissal.


         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on September 16, 2013, alleging that she became disabled on September 1, 2012, due to diabetes, a thyroid condition, anxiety, back pain, and hip problems. (Doc. 9-6, p. 6; Doc. 9-2, pp. 18.) Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to September 16, 2013. (Id.) After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. On April 27, 2016, ALJ Casher conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Mark Leaptrot, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. ALJ Casher found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) since September 16, 2013. (Id.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review. (Id. at p. 2.)

         Plaintiff, born on August 18, 1970, was forty-five (45) years old when ALJ Casher issued his final decision. (Id. at p. 28.) She has a general equivalency diploma (“GED”). (Id.; Doc. 9-6, p. 7.) Plaintiff has no past relevant work experience.[1] (Doc. 9-2, p. 27-28.)


         I. The ALJ's Findings

         Title II of the Act defines “disability” as the “inability 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). The Act qualifies the definition of disability as follows:

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to the Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process to determine whether a person meets the definition of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

         The first step determines if the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then benefits are immediately denied. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in such activity, then the second inquiry is whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. at 140-41. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is severe, then the evaluation proceeds to step three. The third step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations and acknowledged by the Commissioner as sufficiently severe to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P. App. 1; Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the plaintiff is presumed disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         If the impairment does not meet or equal one of the listed impairments, the sequential evaluation proceeds to the fourth step to determine if the impairment precludes the claimant from performing past relevant work, i.e., whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work. Id.; Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 503 Fed.Appx. 692, 693 (11th Cir. 2013). A claimant's residual functional capacity “is an assessment . . . of the claimant's remaining ability to do work despite [her] impairments.” Id. at 693-94 (ellipsis in original) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).[2] If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the final step of the evaluation process determines whether she is able to make adjustments to other work in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1239. Disability benefits will be awarded only if the claimant is unable to perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142.

         In the instant case, the ALJ followed this sequential process to determine that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since September 16, 2013, her application and alleged onset date. (Doc. 9-2, p. 20.) At step two, ALJ Casher determined Plaintiff had degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine post L5-S1 discectomy, diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, obesity, right trochanteric pain, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and opioid abuse, conditions considered “severe” under the Regulations. (Id.) However, at the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (Id. at p. 22.) The ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at the light exertional level, with the following exceptions: lifting 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing, walking, and sitting for six hours out of an eight-hour day; occasional bending, balancing, stopping, kneeling, and crawling; occasional climbing of stairs and ramps, but no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and avoiding extreme heat, cold, vibration, hazards, unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, or uneven surfaces. The ALJ also found Plaintiff could perform simple, routine tasks involving short instructions and simple, work-related decisions with few work changes. (Id. at pp. 23-24.) At the next step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had no past relevant work experience, as Plaintiff's past work did not meet the qualifications for past relevant work because it was not performed within the past fifteen years at substantial gainful activity levels. (Id. at pp. 27-28.) The ALJ concluded at the fifth and final step that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of information clerk, officer helper, and shipping and receiving clerk, all of which are jobs at the light exertional level and which exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at pp. 28-29.)

         II. Issues Presented

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in failing to find she met or equaled Listing 1.04A. In addition, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by finding her hip and spinal impairments did not cause significant functional restrictions that keep her from ...

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