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Combs v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.



         Gwendolyn Denise Combs appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner partially denying her applications 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, this civil action be CLOSED, and a final judgment be ENTERED in favor of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in August 2014, alleging a disability onset date of June 15, 2009. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 11, 218-25. She last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act for DIB on June 30, 2012. R. 12, 257. Plaintiff was forty-three years old on her alleged disability onset date, forty-nine years old on the day before she was found to be disabled, and fifty years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the decision under consideration. R. 23, 25, 218. Plaintiff alleged disability based on the following conditions: hepatoid biliary reconstruction surgery, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, degenerative disc disease in her spine, fibromyalgia, left hip arthritis, pinched nerve in her neck and back, shoulder bursitis, depression, chronic pain, and limited mobility. R. 14, 261. Plaintiff completed tenth grade, and prior to her alleged disability date, had accrued a work history that included jobs as a cook and housekeeper/cleaner. R. 23, 44, 47.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 136-43, 146-50, 152-56. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, (R. 158-59), and the ALJ held a hearing on March 20, 2017. R. 40-77. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and Mary Cornelius, a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. On April 17, 2017 the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding Plaintiff was not disabled prior to May 31, 2016, and therefore not eligible for DIB or SSI prior to that date but eligible for SSI as of May 31, 2016. R. 7-30.

         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 her alleged onset date of June 15, 2009, through her date last insured (“DLI”) of June 30, 2012, and through the date of the administrative decision (C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).[2]
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments since June 15, 2009: degenerative disc disease, depression, anxiety, and polysubstance abuse (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
3. Since June 15, 2009, the claimant has not had 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. Since June 15, 2009, the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work[3] as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) as follows: lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds occasionally; lift, carry, push, and pull less than 10 pounds frequently; sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; stand/walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently stoop, crouch, and kneel; no crawling; frequently balance; no limits on hearing, seeing, or speaking; frequently climb stairs and ramps; no climbing of ladder, ropes, or scaffolds; can frequently reach bilaterally in all directions except only occasional overhead reaching; can frequently finger, feel, and handle; avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations; can frequently use hands and feet for the operation of controls; can perform simple, routine, repetitive job tasks; can understand, remember and carry out job instructions related to simple, routine, repetitive job duties; can accept frequent supervision; can occasionally interact with co-workers and with the general public; works best with objects and not with people; can maintain attention, concentration, and pace if allowed traditionally scheduled work breaks of 15 minutes in the first half of the workday, 15 minutes in the second half of the workday and a 30-minute midday break; can be punctual and work within a set schedule; requires no special supervision to complete work assignments pertaining to simple, routine, repetitive job tasks; can make work related decisions regarding simple, routine, and repetitive job tasks; can adapt to changes in job duties and work assignments if the changes are infrequent and gradually introduced; and should have no fixed quota or fast-paced factory production-line type work assignments. Thus, since June 15, 2009, the claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).
5. Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was a younger individual age 18-44. On May 31, 2016, the claimant's age category changed to an individual closely approaching advanced age (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563 and 416.964). Prior to May 31, 2016, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant No. in the national economy that the claimant could have performed, (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569a, 416.969, and 416.969a), including addresser, lamp shade assembler, and document preparer, all of which are sedentary, unskilled jobs. Beginning on May 31, 2016, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are no jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy that the claimant could perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.960(c), and 416.966). Therefore, the claimant was not disabled prior to May 31, 2016, including at any time through her DLI of June 30, 2012, but she became disabled on May 31, 2016, and has continued to be disabled through the date of the ALJ's decision, April 17, 2017 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g), 404.315(a), 404.320(b)).

R. 13-25.

         When the Appeals Council 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 (1) accorded significant weight to the opinion of consultative examiner Adrian Janit, Ph.D., but failed to explain why he did not incorporate all of Dr. Janit's limitations into the RFC, (2) failed to properly weigh the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Joseph A. Hooper, M.D., and (3) failed to incorporate Plaintiff's need for a cane in formulating the RFC. See Pl.'s Br., doc. no. 14; Pl.'s Reply, doc. no. 18. The Commissioner maintains the administrative decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Comm'r's Br., doc. no. 17.


         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) (per curiam); 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).


         A. The RFC Determination Is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         1. Step Four Framework for Formulating Plaintiff's RFC

         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) & 416.920(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) (per curiam). 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 ...

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