United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division
MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND
K. EPPS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Jones appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security denying her application for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental
Security Income (“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.
applied for DIB and SSI on June 26, 2012, alleging a
disability onset date of January 1, 2011. Tr.
(“R.”), pp. 243-52. Plaintiff was twenty-eight
years old on her alleged disability onset date and was
thirty-two years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) issued the decision under consideration.
R. 84, 243. Plaintiff initially applied for benefits based on
allegations of the following conditions: depression, anxiety,
loss of sight in left eye, “learning, ”
schizophrenia, and “both eyes.” R. 288. Plaintiff
completed eighth grade, and prior to her alleged disability,
Plaintiff had accrued a relevant work history as a lumber
department cashier, cashier, and babysitter. R. 99, 279,
Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's
applications initially, R. 136-53, and on reconsideration, R.
156-87. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, R.
206-07, and the ALJ held a hearing on June 30, 2016. R.
92-135. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from
Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as from
Alissa Smith, a Vocational Expert. Id. On July 25,
2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 68-84.
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 January 1, 2011, the alleged onset date (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments:
obesity, diabetes mellitus type II, astigmatism, myopia,
amblyopia, anxiety disorder, and affective disorders noted as
bipolar, schizoaffective and adjustment disorders. (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) except she is
unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; would need to
avoid concentrated exposures to hazards, things such as
unprotected heights, working around dangerous moving
machinery; would need to work in an environment not requiring
driving as part of work; limited to doing only simple,
routine tasks, involving only simple work place judgements
with only occasional interaction with the general public.
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 housekeeper and routing clerk (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 January 11, 2011,
through July 25, 2016 (the date of the ALJ's decision)
(20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
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
argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by
substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly: (1)
determine Plaintiff's RFC; and (2) evaluate
Plaintiff's subjective complaints. See doc. nos.
10 (“Pl.'s Br.”), 12 (“Pl.'s
Reply”). The Commissioner maintains the decision to
deny Plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence
and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 11
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
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).
argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by
substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly
determine Plaintiff's RFC by erroneously evaluating: (1)
the limitations recommended by consulting psychologists Drs.
John C. Whitley, III, and M. Kevin Turner; (2)
Plaintiff's mental limitations; and (3) Plaintiff's
morbid obesity. Pl.'s Br., pp. 6-16. Plaintiff also
argues the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's
subjective complaints by erroneously: (1) applying a
subjective standard for disability; (2) assessing
Plaintiff's treatment record; (3) assessing
Plaintiff's compliance with her treatment regiment; (4)
assessing Plaintiff's work history; (5) evaluating
Plaintiff's vision impairments; (6) evaluating
Plaintiff's daily activities; (7) discounting lay
evidence; and (8) evaluating Plaintiff's morbid obesity.
Id. at 16-25. As explained below, the ALJ properly
determined Plaintiff's RFC and evaluated her subjective
complaints. Therefore, none of Plaintiff's arguments form
a valid basis for reversal or remand.
At Step Four, the ALJ Properly Determined Plaintiff's
four of the sequential process, the ALJ evaluates a
claimant's RFC and ability to return to past relevant
work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). RFC is defined in
the regulations “as that which an individual is still
able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her
impairments.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Courts have
described RFC as “a medical assessment of what the
claimant can do in a work setting despite any mental,
physical or environmental limitations caused by the
claimant's impairments and related symptoms.”
Watkins v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.Appx.
868, 870 n.5 (11th Cir. 2012).
are divided into three categories: (1) exertional limitations
that impact the ability to perform the strength demands of a
job, i.e., sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying,
pushing or pulling; (2) non-exertional limitations that
impact the ability to meet non-strength job demands, i.e.,
tolerating dust and fumes, appropriately responding to
supervision, co-workers and work pressure, and difficulty
performing manipulative or postural functions of jobs; and
(3) a combination of exertional and non-exertional
limitations. Baker v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 384
Fed.Appx. 893, 894 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1569a(b)-(d)). When determining whether a claimant can
return to his past relevant work, the ALJ must consider
“all the relevant medical and other evidence.”
Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238.
categorizing the physical exertion requirements of jobs, the
Commissioner classifies jobs as sedentary, light, medium,
heavy, and very heavy. 20 C.F.R § 404.1567. Here, the
ALJ determined Plaintiff has the ability to perform light
work with additional restrictions. “Light work”
is defined as work that involves
lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent
lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even
though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this
category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing,
or when it involves sitting most of the time with some
pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered
capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you
must have the ability to do substantially all of these
activities. If someone can do light work, we determine that
he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are
additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or
inability to sit for long periods of time.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) & 416.967(b).
determining at step four in the sequential process whether
Plaintiff's RFC for light work would allow her to perform
past relevant work, the ALJ consulted the VE in accordance
with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(2), which provides as
follows: “A vocational expert or specialist may offer
relevant evidence within his or her expertise or knowledge
concerning the physical and mental demands of a
claimant's past relevant work, either as the claimant
actually performed it or as generally performed in the
national economy.” The VE identified Plaintiff's
past work as: (1) a cashier as medium work with an SVP of 2;
and (2) a reef maker as light work with an SVP of 2. R.
129-31. The VE opined a hypothetical individual with the
Plaintiff's age, education, past job experience, and
physical limitations could not perform Plaintiff's past
relevant work but could perform as housekeeper or routing
clerk. R. 130-133.
The ALJ Properly Considered the Opinions of Drs. Whitley and
Turner in ...