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White v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 19, 2018




         The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) determination, denied Plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, finding that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and accompanying 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. Bloodsworth 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 he 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 he 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 James Earl White applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on April 3, 2014, alleging he became disabled to work on July 22, 2013. His applications were denied initially on September 15, 2014, and on reconsideration on February 18, 2015. On March 4, 2015, Plaintiff timely requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ and the hearing was conducted on October 19, 2016. Tr. 20. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with his attorney and testified, as did an impartial vocational expert. Tr. 43-80. On April 17, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying his applications. Tr. 17-42. Plaintiff next sought review by the Appeals Council, but was denied on March 9, 2018. Plaintiff has exhausted the available administrative remedies under the Social Security Act and seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his claims for benefits.


         On his alleged disability date Plaintiff was thirty-six years old and classified as a “younger person” under the Commissioner's regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963; Finding 7, Tr. 35. In conducting the five-step sequential analysis of his claims the ALJ found, at step two, that Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, joint disease, substance abuse and alcohol abuse disorders, and personality disorder. Finding 3, Tr. 22. At step three, the ALJ determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal a listed impairment set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 22-24. Between steps three and four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff to have the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to engage in a restricted range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b) with added exertional, environmental, postural and non-exertional limitations. Finding 5, Tr. 24-35. The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff cannot resume his past relevant work as a materials handler. Finding 6, Tr. 35. At step five, the ALJ established, through the testimony of the vocational expert, that Plaintiff's restricted RFC permits him to engage in light work as a marker, garment sorter, and assembler, and that these jobs are available to him in the national economy. Finding 10, Tr. 36-37. She therefore found Plaintiff to be not disabled to work. Finding 11, Tr. 37.


         I. Substantial Evidence Determination

         Plaintiff contends that “the ALJ's findings at all stages of the proceedings, from step [t]wo through [s]tep [f]ive, were not based on substantial evidence.” Pl.'s Br. 30-31. No. error occurred at step two because, by finding at least one or more severe impairments (in this case both exertional and non-exertional) and proceeding to subsequent steps in the sequential analysis, the ALJ ruled in Plaintiff's favor at step-two. In Heatly v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 382 Fed.Appx. 823 (11th Cir. 2010), the Eleventh Circuit held that “nothing requires that the ALJ must identify, at step-two, all of the impairments that should be considered severe.” Id. at 824-25. Instead, what is important is that the ALJ properly considers all impairments at subsequent steps. Tuggerson-Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 572 Fed.Appx. 949 (11th Cir. 2014). Plaintiff's claim that the ALJ erred at step two is meritless.

         At step three, an ALJ is required to determine whether a claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meet or medically equal a listed impairment set forth in the Commissioner's regulations. Plaintiff's brief, though lengthy, does not specifically claim that the ALJ committed an error at step three. The Court has nonetheless reviewed ...

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