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Lester v. Berryhill

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

December 4, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Darius Antwain Lester appeals the decision of the Deputy Commissioner for Operations denying his application for 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, this civil action be CLOSED, and a final judgment be ENTERED in favor of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on May 5, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of March 4, 2009. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 18, 216, 239. Plaintiff was twenty-six years old at his alleged disability onset date and was thirty-three years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the decision currently under consideration. R. 29, 239.

         Plaintiff applied for benefits based on allegations of multiple physical injuries, including traumatic brain injury, from a motorcycle accident, memory and hearing impairments, sleeping disorder, depression, headaches, and pain. R. 243, 320. Plaintiff alternately reported completing tenth or eleventh grade, but had not obtained a GED. R. 66, 244, 673. Prior to his alleged disability, Plaintiff had no past relevant work under 20 C.F.R. § 416.965, but in November 2016, he was working at a Krystal restaurant for approximately fifteen to twenty hours per week. R. 27, 69, 100.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application initially, R. 166-69, and on reconsideration, R. 173-76. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, R. 177-79, and the ALJ held a hearing on November 21, 2016. R. 54-115. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who appeared with counsel, as well as from Plaintiff's mother and Mary Cornelius, a Vocational Expert. Id. On December 28, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 15-33.

         Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ found:[1]

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 5, 2014, the application date (20 C.F.R. § 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: neurocognitive disorder, traumatic brain injury, psychotic disorder, mood disorder and status-post fractures of the right lower extremity (20 C.F.R. § 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. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c).[2] The claimant can occasionally lift and carry 50 pounds, and frequently lift and carry 25 pounds. He is able to sit, stand, and walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday. He is able to frequently kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. He is able to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks and make simple work-related decisions, however, he is able to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for periods of two hours, perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and complete normal workday and workweek. He is able to tolerate occasional changes in a routine work setting. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 416.965).
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 hand packer, can filler, and food preparation worker, all unskilled jobs with an SVP of 2.[3] (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.969, and 416.969(a)). Therefore, the claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since May 5, 2014, the date the application was filed (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)).

         R. 20-28.

         When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-5, 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 that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions in the record. See doc. no. 11 (“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. 14.


         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 ...

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