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Lewis v. Saul

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

July 9, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Pamela 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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.

         Applying 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, and 404.1526).
4. The claimant has the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)[2] 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)).

R. 19-28.

         When 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 decision.

         Plaintiff 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.


         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 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).


         A. The Sequential Evaluation Process

         The Eleventh Circuit has outlined the five-step sequential process for evaluating a claim for disability benefits as follows:

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).

         At step 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 two.

         B. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Impairments at Step Two

         The 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 instructions;
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.


         However, 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 experience.” Id.

         As the 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.

         To the 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.

         C. 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

         Plaintiff 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).

         In 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).

         1. Listing 1.02

          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 ...

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