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Bufford v. Berryhill

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

March 19, 2019

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



         Bonnie Bufford appeals the decision of the Deputy Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. Upon consideration of the briefs, the record evidence, and the relevant statutory and case law, the Court REPORTS and RECOMMENDS pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and the case be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further consideration in accordance with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI on January 8, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2013. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 18, 203-08. Plaintiff was forty-four years old at her alleged disability onset date and forty-eight years old when the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the decision currently under consideration. R. 24, 29, 219. Plaintiff applied for benefits based on a combination of alleged impairments, including past heart attacks, chest pains, rheumatoid arthritis, seizures, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depression, chronic anemia, iron allergy, swelling, and pain. R. 223. Plaintiff obtained a GED, and prior to her alleged disability accrued relevant work history as a cabinet refinisher and waitress. R. 225.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration. R. 95-132. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ, R. 149, and the ALJ held a hearing on November 8, 2016. R. 35-94. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by Dorita P. Watson, a non-attorney representative, and William W. Stewart, a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. On January 18, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 15-29. 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 June 1, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease status post myocardial infarction and stenting, emphysema, chronic anemia, seizures, peripheral neuropathy, depression, anxiety, and personality disorder. (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 light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), [2] except: lift, carry, push, and/or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; frequently use right lower extremity foot controls; frequently use right upper extremity hand controls; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps; occasionally balance; never climb ladders, ropes, and/or scaffolds; no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; no operating a motor vehicle; no work in or around large bodies of water or power lines; occasional exposure to dust, fumes, gasses, or odors; frequent exposure to extremes of cold temperature; limited to work in a low stress environment, meaning the worker is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, is not required to meet a rigid, inflexible production schedule, make complex decisions, and there are no more than occasional changes in a routine work setting and any such changes should only be gradually introduced, but able to maintain concentration, persistence, or pace for periods of 2 hours, perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance and complete a normal workday and workweek, except may occasionally be absent approximately 1 day per month; no interaction with the general public; and occasional close “team-type” interaction with coworkers. The claimant is capable of past relevant work as a cabinet refinisher, waitress, sash and door hand sander, sash and door stainer, and sash and door machine sander. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's RFC. (20 C.F.R. § 416.965.)

R. 20-28.

         Because the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work, the sequential evaluation process stopped, and the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since the alleged disability onset date of June 1, 2013. R. 28. When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 4-6, 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 the adverse decision. Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to (1) consider several of Plaintiff's impairments at Steps Three and Four; (2) properly evaluate the medical source opinions of record; and (3) properly determine whether Plaintiff could return to past relevant work . See doc. no. 11 (“Pl.'s Br.”); doc. no. 13 (“Pl.'s Reply”); doc. no. 19 (“Pl.'s Surreply”). The Commissioner maintains the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 12 (“Comm'r's Br.”); doc. no. 14 (“Comm'r's Surreply”).


         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 that judicial review of the Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to the 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).

         III. ...

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