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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Gainesville Division

December 5, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This Social Security case was referred to the undersigned upon consent of the parties by United States District Judge Mark E. Walker. ECF No. 16, 17. It is now before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the final determination of the Acting Commissioner (Commissioner) of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. See ECF No. 1. After careful consideration of the record, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. Procedural History and Facts

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on December 31, 2012, alleging a disability beginning on September 7, 2010. Tr. 37, 165-71.[1] The application was denied initially on March 22, 2013, Tr. 119-24, and again on reconsideration on July 3, 2013. Tr. 130-34. A hearing was requested and a video hearing was held on February 18, 2015, before administrative law judge (ALJ) William H. Greer at which Plaintiff appeared pro se. Tr. 54-69. Although informed of her right to representation, Plaintiff chose to appear and testify without the assistance of counsel or other representative. Tr. 163. Impartial vocational expert Jackson C. McKay also testified. Tr. 66-68.

         On May 18, 2015, a decision was entered denying Plaintiff's application. Tr. 37-48. Plaintiff sought review in the Appeals Council, which denied review on March 17, 2017. Tr. 1-4. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner and is ripe for review. Accordingly, Plaintiff, appearing pro se, filed this complaint for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See ECF No. 1.

         In the decision issued on May 18, 2015, the ALJ made findings pertinent to this review:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2012, the application date. Tr. 39.
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: headaches, vertigo, left carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disc/joint disease of the cervical spine, an anxiety disorder, and an affective disorder. Tr. 39.
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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 40.
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except with no work around unprotected heights, no work around moving and hazardous machinery, or driving motorized vehicles. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to no more than semi-skilled work. Tr. 41.
5. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a customer service representative. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity. Tr. 47.
6. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since December 31, 2012, the date the application was filed. Tr. 48.

         Based on these findings, and the reasons set forth in the decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff is not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A)[2] of the Social Security Act. Tr. 48.

         II. Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         This Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and premised upon correct legal principles. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted); accord Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). “The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).[3] The Court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239, although the Court must scrutinize the entire record, consider evidence detracting from the evidence on which the Commissioner relied, and determine the reasonableness of the factual findings. Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992); Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986). Review is deferential, but the reviewing court conducts what has been referred to as “an independent review of the record.” Flynn v. Heckler, 768 F.2d 1273, 1273 (11th Cir. 1985).

         A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do past relevant work, “but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). A disability is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.909 (duration requirement). Both the “impairment” and the “inability” must be expected to last not less than 12 months. Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002).

         The Commissioner analyzes a claim in five steps, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v):

1. Is the individual currently engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2. Does the individual have any severe impairments?
3. Does the individual have any severe impairments that meet or equal those listed in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P?
4. Does the individual have the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work despite limitations and are there any impairments which prevent past relevant work?[4]
5. Do the individual's impairments prevent other work?

         A positive finding at step one or a negative finding at step two results in disapproval of the application for benefits. A positive finding at step three results in approval of the application for benefits. At step four, the claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that precludes the performance of past relevant work. Consideration is given to the assessment of the claimant's RFC and the claimant's past relevant work. If the claimant can still do past relevant work, there will be a finding that the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant carries this burden, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that despite the claimant's impairments, the claimant is able to perform other work available in significant numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228-29 (11th Cir. 1999); Chester, 792 F.2d at 131; MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 ...

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