United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division
MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND
K. EM'S UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Bonnita Lewis appeals the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security denying her application for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) 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.
applied for DIB in July of 2017, alleging a disability onset
date of May 31, 2016. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 17, 237.
Plaintiff's last insured date for purposes of the DIB
application is December 31, 2020. R. 237, 271, 284. Plaintiff
was forty-four years old on her alleged disability onset
date. R. 237. Plaintiff applied for benefits based on
allegations of obesity, lower back pain, migraines,
endometriosis, arthralgia, post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”), depression, knee pain, irritable bowel
syndrome (“IBS”), gastroesophageal reflux disease
(“GERD”), stomach pain, and nausea. R. 241.
Plaintiff has a twelfth-grade education and completed one
year of college. R. 242. Prior to her alleged disability,
Plaintiff had accrued relevant work history as a customer
service representative and corrections officer. R. 26, 242.
Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's
applications initially, R. 143-47, and on reconsideration, R.
151-55. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), R. 156-57, and
the ALJ held a hearing on July 21, 2017. R. 34-102. At the
hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was
represented by counsel, as well as from Robert E. Brabham,
Jr., M.R.C., CRC, a Vocational Expert (“VE”).
Id. On November 8, 2017, the ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision. R. 14-28.
the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520,
the ALJ found:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since May 31, 2016, the alleged onset date (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar
spine disorder with radiculopathy; degenerative joint disease
of the left knee; morbid obesity; intermittent migraine
headaches; depression; and post-traumatic stress disorder (20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(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. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525,
4. The claimant has the RFC to perform light work, as defined
in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except: she is limited to
performing simple, routine tasks, but is able to maintain
concentration, persistence, and pace to perform such tasks
for two-hour increments without special supervision; must
have no required interaction with the general public; is able
to tolerate occasional interaction with coworkers; requires a
low-stress environment, defined as an environment that does
not require her to meet a rigid, inflexible production
schedule such as piece rate or assembly line work, in an
environment that is well-separated and not crowded, with no
complex decisions, and must not require her to adapt to
frequent changes, with any such changes also being gradually
introduced; is able to stand and/or walk an aggregate of four
hours in an eight-hour day; sit at least six hours of an
eight-hour day; is able to occasionally stoop, twist, crouch,
kneel, crawl, balance and climb ramps or stairs, but is never
able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; must have no
required exposure to unprotected heights, vibration, or
dangerous machinery; and must have no required concentrated
exposure to dust, fumes, gases, odors, or extremes of
humidity or heat. Thus, the claimant is unable to perform any
past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).
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 production inspector, bottle line
attendant, stuffer, and bench hand packer (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)). Therefore, the
claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the
Social Security Act, from May 31, 2016, through the date of
the ALJ's decision (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).
the Appeals Council (“AC”) 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
argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by
substantial evidence because the ALJ: (1) failed to properly
evaluate her impairments; (2) determined her impairments do
not meet or medically equal Listings 1.02, 1.04, and 12.04;
(3) erred in evaluating her RFC by determining her subjective
complaints were not consistent with the evidence of record;
(4) (5) erred in deciding Plaintiff could perform the jobs
listed at Step Five of the sequential process. See
doc. no. 10 (“Pl.'s Br.”). Plaintiff also
appended recent treatment records as supplemental evidence to
support her contentions. Id. at 13-17. The
Commissioner maintains the decision to deny Plaintiff
benefits is supported by substantial evidence and should
therefore be affirmed and argues Plaintiff is not entitled to
a remand pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
based on her newly-submitted medical records. See
doc. no. 12 (“Comm'r's Br.”). For the
reasons stated below, the Court finds the Commissioner's
final decision should be affirmed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
deference accorded the Commissioner's findings of fact
does not extend to his conclusions of law, which enjoy no
presumption of validity. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d
1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding judicial review of
Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to
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).
The Sequential Evaluation Process
Eleventh Circuit has outlined the five-step sequential
process for evaluating a claim for disability benefits as
1. Is the individual performing substantial gainful activity;
2. Does she have a severe impairment;
3. Does she have a severe impairment that meets or equals an
impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1;
4. Can she perform her past relevant work; and
5. Based on her age, education, and work experience, can she
perform other work of the sort found in the national economy.
Phillip v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir.
2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520).
one, if the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity,
the process stops, and a claimant is determined to be
“not disabled.” Id. If the claimant is
not doing substantial gainful activity, the process proceeds
to step two. Id. In this case, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since her alleged onset date, R. 19, and moved on to step
The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Impairments at
regulations instruct that a severe impairment is one which
significantly limits one's ability to perform
“basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1522(a) and 416.922(a) (“An impairment or
combination of impairments is not severe if it does not
significantly limit your physical or mental ability to do
basic work activities.”). Basic work activities involve
“the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most
jobs.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522. Examples include:
1. Physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting,
lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling;
2. Capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking;
3. Understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple
4. Use of judgment;
5. Responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and
usual work situations; and
6. Dealing with changes in a routine work setting.
the severity test at step two of the sequential process is
designed to screen out only groundless claims.
Tuggerson-Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 572
Fed.Appx. 949, 950 (11th Cir. 2014) (per curiam).
The severity test has been described “as a de minimis
requirement which only screens out those applicants whose
medical problems could ‘not possibly' prevent them
from working.” Stratton v. Bowen, 827 F.2d
1447, 1452 & n.9 (11th Cir. 1987) (citation omitted). In
fact, the Eleventh Circuit describes step two as the
“slight abnormality” test. Bridges v.
Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 625 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing
Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914 (11th Cir. 1984)).
Under this test, “an impairment can be considered as
not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such
a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be
expected to interfere with the individual's ability to
work, irrespective of age, education, or work
Eleventh Circuit has explained, “[s]tep two is a
threshold inquiry” and “allows only claims based
on the most trivial impairments to be rejected.”
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1031 (11th Cir.
1986). Finally, “there is no need for an ALJ to
identify every severe impairment at step two, ” and the
complainant cannot demonstrate error at step two even if an
ALJ fails to recognize a severe impairment if he or she
considers all impairments, regardless of severity, in
performing the latter steps of the sequential evaluation.
Tuggerson-Brown, 572 Fed.Appx. at 951.
extent Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings at step
two, she is not entitled to remand on this basis. The ALJ
specifically addressed each impairment Plaintiff raises in
her brief and determined several of Plaintiff's
impairments constitute severe impairments. R. 19-20;
Pl.'s Br., pp. 1-6. Thus, after determining at least one
of Plaintiff's impairments was severe, the ALJ correctly
continued on to the next step. Tuggerson-Brown, 572
Fed.Appx. at 950-51.
The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Evidence and Concluded
Plaintiff's Impairments Did Not Meet or Medically Equal
Listings 1.02, 1.04, or 12.04
argues her severe impairments met or medically equaled
Listings 1.02, 1.04, and 12.04. Pl.'s Br., pp. 2-5. At
step three of the evaluation process, the Commissioner must
determine whether a claimant meets or equals a disability
described in the Listing of Impairments, which describes
impairments severe enough to prevent a person from performing
any gainful activity. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d
528, 532 (11th Cir. 1993). Plaintiff bears the burden of
showing that her condition meets or equals a Listing.
Castle v. Colvin, 557 Fed.Appx. 849, 852 (11th Cir.
2014) (per curiam); Wilkinson ex rel. Wilkinson
v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 660, 662 (11th Cir. 1987).
order to show her impairment meets a Listing, Plaintiff needs
to satisfy all of the specified medical criteria; “[a]n
impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no
matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v.
Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). “To
‘equal' a Listing, the medical findings must be
‘at least equal in severity and duration to the listed
findings.'” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). It is
axiomatic that when a claimant's condition meets or
equals a Listing, the Commissioner must find the claimant
disabled without regard to the claimant's age, education,
or previous work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
Listing 1.02 requires:
[A m]ajor dysfunction of a joint(s) (due to any cause):
Characterized by gross anatomical deformity (e.g.,
subluxation, contracture, bony or fibrous ankylosis,
instability) and chronic joint pain and stiffness with signs
of limitation of motion or other abnormal motion of the
affected joint(s), and findings on appropriate medically
acceptable imaging ...