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Jones v. Berryhill

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

November 19, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Defendant



         Cornelia 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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, 298-302.

         The 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.

         Applying 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 et seq.).
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)[1] 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)).

         R. 73-83.

         When 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 decision.

         Plaintiff 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 (“Comm'r's Br.”).


         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).


         Plaintiff 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.

         A. At Step Four, the ALJ Properly Determined Plaintiff's RFC

         1. Legal Framework

         At step 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).

         Limitations 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.

         In 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).

         In 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.

         2. The ALJ Properly Considered the Opinions of Drs. Whitley and Turner in ...

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