United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division
STEPHEN HYLES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the
Administrative Law Judge's determination, denied
Plaintiff's deceased daughter's applications for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income finding that she was 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.
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. 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.
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). 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.
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.
Boyd Shelton, (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) on behalf
of his deceased daughter Cindy Hooper, (hereinafter
“Claimant”) brings this action for judicial
review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final
decision denying applications for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income filed by Claimant
prior to her death. Claimant filed her applications on
February 27, 2012, alleging disability to work beginning
November 15, 2008. Her claims were denied initially on July
13, 2012, and on reconsideration on October 26, 2012.
Claimant timely requested an evidentiary hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) and the hearing
was conducted on July 8, 2013. The ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision denying her claims on August 26, 2013. Tr. 207-26.
The Appeals Council granted Claimant's request for review
of the ALJ's decision and on February 10, 2015, remanded
the case to the ALJ for further consideration with specific
instructions. Tr. 227-31.
second evidentiary hearing on September 1, 2016, a different
ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Claimant's
applications. Tr. 15-36. Claimant again sought review by the
Appeals Council on October 11, 2016, but was denied on April
3, 2017. Tr. 10-14, 1-6. She then brought this action for
review of the Commissioner's decision but died on June
15, 2017. A motion seeking to substitute Plaintiff as a party
was filed on August 2, 2017. Mot. to Substitute Parties, ECF
No. 11. The Commissioner did not object and the Court ordered
substitution on August 24, 2017. Text-Only Order, ECF No. 17.
All administrative remedies having been exhausted, this case
is ripe for judicial review.
OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE
date the ALJ issued his decision Claimant was fifty-three
years old. Tr. 30, 206. She had two years of college and had
previously worked as a cashier, salesperson, office manager,
pool maintenance supervisor, mail carrier, and had owned and
operated a small business. Tr. 88-89, 369-70. In her
applications for benefits she alleged she was disabled to
work due to Behcet's syndrome, vasculitis, poor vision,
and stroke. Tr. 369.
conducting the five-step sequential evaluation of her claim
prescribed by the Commissioner's regulations, the
ALJ—at step two—found Claimant to have severe
impairments of Behcet's syndrome, anxiety, and
fibromyalgia. Finding 3, Tr. 20. At step three, he determined
that these impairments, considered alone and in combination
with one another, neither met nor medically equaled a listed
impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. Finding 4, Tr. 21-22. Between steps three and four, the
ALJ formulated a residual functional capacity assessment
(“RFC”) which permitted Claimant to engage in
light work with additional restrictions. These restrictions
included limitations to work with only short and simple
instructions generally and detailed instructions
occasionally, no more than two-hour blocks of concentration,
and changes in the workplace introduced occasionally. Finding
4, Tr. 22-28. At step four, the ALJ found that this
restricted RFC would not allow Claimant to return to any of
her past relevant work. Finding 6, Tr. 28. Relying on the
evidence of record ...