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Moon v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

December 5, 2018

MELISSA MOON, Plaintiff,

         Social Security Appeal



         The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) determination, denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, finding that she is 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. § 636(c)(3).


         The 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.[1] 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. Bloods worth 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.

         The 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).[2] 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.

         Under 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.


         Plaintiff Melissa Leigh Moon applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI, on June 13, 2011, alleging she became disabled to work on February 18, 2008. Her claims were denied initially on September 12, 2011, and after reconsideration on December 28, 2011. In writing, she requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ on February 2, 2012, and a hearing was held on December 18, 2012. On May 1, 2013, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff disabled to work as of August 1, 2012. Tr. 220-41. Despite being awarded disability insurance benefits as of August 1, 2012, Plaintiff appealed the partially favorable decision to the Appeals Council seeking additional benefits from her alleged onset date of February 18, 2008.

         On August 1, 2014, the Appeals Council notified Plaintiff and her attorney that it planned to vacate the partially favorable decision and remand the case to an ALJ for a new decision. Although the Appeals Council gave Plaintiff and her attorney thirty days to respond to this notice, no response was made. Tr. 250. Therefore, in an order dated September 23, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the benefits award and remanded the case to an ALJ, with specific instructions to further develop the record with additional evidence-including testimony from a medical expert about the nature and severity of a specific severe impairment found by the ALJ to result in Plaintiff's disability to work. The Appeals Council also directed the ALJ to specifically address and determine the onset of disability date. Tr. 250-52.

         Accordingly, the ALJ conducted another evidentiary hearing on January 15, 2016, ordered a consultative examination, and scheduled a supplemental hearing which was held on October 21, 2016. There, a medical expert, an impartial vocational expert, and Plaintiff all testified. Plaintiff submitted additional evidence which required a second supplemental hearing held on April 21, 2017. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 12, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled to work. Tr. 10-40. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council, but her request was denied. Tr. 7-9, 1-6. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her applications for benefits. This case is ripe for review. 42 U.S.C. 405(g), 1383(c)(3).


         On the date Plaintiff alleges she became disabled, she was thirty-nine years old and classified as a “younger individual” under the Commissioner's regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963; Finding 7, Tr. 29. She has a high school education and past relevant work as a sales clerk, secretary, collection clerk, receptionist, and teller. Findings 6, 8, Tr. 29. In conducting the five-step sequential evaluation of Plaintiff's claims, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff was insured through December 31, 2015, for purposes of her Title II claim and that, despite working for years after her alleged onset of disability date, she had not been engaged in “substantial gainful activity” as the Commissioner defines it. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq., 416.971 et seq.; Findings 1, 2, Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of overactive bladder, cystitis of the ovaries, degenerative disc disease, anxiety, and major depressive disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(c), 416.920(c); Finding 3, Tr. 18. Next, at step three, he found that these impairments, considered both alone and in combination with one another, neither meet nor medically equal a listed impairment set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 18-20. Between steps three and four, the ALJ formulated a residual functional capacity assessment (“RFC”) that permits Plaintiff to engage in a restricted range of light work, with exertional and non-exertional limitations. Finding 5, Tr. 20-29. At step four, he found ...

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