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Parr v. Berryhill

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

June 26, 2018

BRENDA JOYCE PARR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          BKIAN K. EPFS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Brenda Joyce Parr appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and disabled widow's insurance benefits 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 in October 16, 2012, and disabled widow's insurance benefits on May 26, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of October 12, 2004. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 199-205, 215-222. Plaintiff's last insured date for purposes of the DIB application was June 30, 2010. R. 229. Plaintiff's first insured date for purposes of the disabled widow's benefits application was May 14, 2015, and the last insured date is June 30, 2020. R. 20. Plaintiff was forty-four years old on her alleged disability onset date. R. 199. Plaintiff applied for benefits based on allegations of major depression, bi-polar disorder, loneliness, fear, hurt, and concentration. R. 248. Plaintiff has a twelfth grade education, and prior to her alleged disability, Plaintiff had accrued relevant work history as a corrections officer, dialysis lab technician, EMT, lab tech, secretary, front desk clerk, and sleever at a sewing factory. R. 249.

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's applications initially, R. 74-80, and on reconsideration, R. 81-91. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), R. 115-16, and the ALJ held a hearing on March 14, 2016. R. 32-73. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as from Tina Baker-Ivey, a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. On June 16, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 14-26.

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

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 12, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq.).
2. After June 30, 2010 (date last insured expired), the claimant has the following severe impairment: bipolar disorder (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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, and 404.1526).
4. The claimant has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can perform work limited to simple, routine work; work involving simple, work related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes; and can have occasional interaction with co-workers and supervision, but no public interaction (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).
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 dry cleaner helper, laundry laborer, and assembly line worker (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)). Therefore, the claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 12, 2004, through June 16, 2016 (the date of the ALJ's decision) (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

R. 19-26.

         When the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-3, the Commissioner's decision became “final” for the purpose of judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this civil action requesting reversal or remand of that adverse decision. Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to fully consider Dr. Babatunde Fagbamiye's opinion in finding Plaintiff does not meet Listing 12.04. See doc. no. 7 (“Pl.'s Br.”). The Commissioner maintains the decision to deny Plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 9 (“Comm'r's Br.”).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to fully consider Dr. Fagbamiye's opinion in finding Plaintiff does not meet Listing 12.04. See Pl.'s Br., pp. 5-7. As explained below, the ALJ concluded based on substantial evidence Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal Listing 12.04 and properly considered and gave little weight to Dr. Fagbamiye's opinions. Therefore, Plaintiff's argument does not form a valid basis for reversal or remand.

         A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Evidence and Concluded Plaintiff's Severe Impairment Did Not Meet or Medically Equal Listing 12.04

         1. Step Three Framework and Standard

         If at step two of the evaluation process an ALJ finds a claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is “severe, ” then at step three the ALJ must determine whether that impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. “To ‘meet' a Listing, a claimant must have a diagnosis included in the Listings and must provide medical reports documenting that the conditions meet the specific criteria of the Listings and the duration requirement.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a)-(d). Moreover, “to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria[;] [a]n impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990) (emphasis in original).

         An impairment “medically equals” a listing where “the medical findings are at least equal in severity and duration to the listed findings.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a); see also Wilkinson o/b/o Wilkinson, 847 F.2d 660, 662 (11th Cir. 1987) (“In order to equal a listing, the medical findings must be at least equal in severity and duration to the listed findings.”) (emphasis in original). Furthermore, “[a]ny medical findings in evidence [relating to medical equivalence] must be supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(b). A claimant cannot equal a listing by “showing that the overall functional impact of his unlisted impairment or combination of impairments is as severe as that of a listed impairment.” Zebley, 193 U.S. at 531.

         The claimant bears the burden of producing medical evidence demonstrating his condition or conditions meet or equal a listed impairment. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

         2. Substantial Evidence Supports The ALJ's Finding Plaintiff's Severe Impairment Did Not Meet or Medically Equal Listing 12.04

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ should have found her bipolar disorder meets or equals Listing 12.04 and failed to do so because he did not properly consider Dr. Fagbamiye's “medical findings related to Listing 12.04.” Pl.'s Br. pp. 5-7. The ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's mental impairment does not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listing 12.04 is supported by substantial evidence.

         At step two of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. R. 20. However, at step three, the ALJ found the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairment does not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listing 12.04. R. 20. Listing 12.04, states affective disorders are:

[c]haracterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; it generally involves either depression or elation. The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements ...

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