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Stallworth v. Berryhill

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

February 28, 2018

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



         This case was referred to the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rules 72.1(A), 72.2(D) and 72.3 of this court relating to review of administrative determinations under the Social Security Act (“Act”) and related statutes, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. It is now before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Act for review of a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83.

         Upon review of the record before this court, it is the opinion of the undersigned that the findings of fact and determinations of the Commissioner are not supported by substantial evidence; thus, the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed and remanded.


         On May 28, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, and in the application he alleged disability beginning December 31, 2008 (tr. 19).[1] His application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and thereafter Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on November 3, 2015, and on November 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff “Not Disabled, ” as defined under the Act, at any time through the date of his decision (tr. 19-26). On December 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (tr. 1). Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this court. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). This appeal followed.


         In his written decision of November 25, 2015, the ALJ made several findings relative to the issues raised in this appeal (tr. 19-26):

1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 28, 2013, the date he applied for SSI;
2) Plaintiff had the following severe impairments during the relevant period: lumbar spine degenerative disc disease and obesity[2];
3) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
4) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with certain restrictions[3];
5) Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work;
6) Plaintiff was born on March 8, 1974, and was 39 years old and thus a “younger individual” (i.e., one aged between 18 and 49) on the date he applied for SSI;
7) Plaintiff has a limited education and is able to communicate in English;
8) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that Plaintiff is “not disabled, ” whether or not he has transferable job skills;
9) Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that Plaintiff could have performed that existed in significant numbers in the national economy;
10) Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, between the date of his application for SSI, May 28, 2013, and the date of the ALJ's decision, November 25, 2015.


         Review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence from the record and was a result of the application of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or that proper legal standards were not applied.”); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.” Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision will not be disturbed if in light of the record as a whole the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The Act defines a disability as 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). To qualify as a disability the physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous 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.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(g), the Commissioner analyzes a disability claim in five steps:

1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, his impairments must be severe before he can be found disabled.
3. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity and he has severe impairments that have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and if his impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
4. If the claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing his past relevant work, he is not disabled.
5. Even if the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates his RFC and vocational factors, he is not disabled.

         The claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that keeps him from performing his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912. If the claimant establishes such an impairment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy which, given the claimant's impairments, the claimant can perform. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1052 (11th Cir. 1986). If the Commissioner carries this burden, the claimant must then prove he cannot perform the work suggested by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).


         A. Plaintiff's Statements and Testimony

         On July 1, 2013, Plaintiff was interviewed in connection with his claim for SSI. He advised the interviewer that he could walk a block, could care for his own “grooming, ” could drive, could perform “light household chores unassisted, ” could lift a gallon of milk, that he shopped, and that he was able to cook a simple meal (tr. 171). Plaintiff made similar reports in an interview conducted on September 18, 2013, although he additionally advised that he was able to bathe and dress without assistance (tr. 59).

         At Plaintiff's hearing, held November 3, 2015, Plaintiff testified that he was forty-one years of age and had completed the eleventh grade (tr. 36). He noted that he was 5'7” and weighed 270 pounds (tr. 37). Plaintiff stated he previously worked as a delivery driver but stopped working in or about 2012 due to constant back pain (tr. 38, 45).[4] When asked why he was presently unable to work, Plaintiff stated that he cannot “be seated that long, ” his legs give out unexpectedly, and he can “hardly lift” with his right (dominant) arm (tr. 39, 37). He explained that the issue with his legs began “over a year ago” when he “first fell” (tr. 39).

         Plaintiff then testified that the “worst pain in [his] body” was his back pain and that it occurred on a daily basis (tr. 40). He rated his pain at a ten (the worst) on a ten-point scale when he does not take his medication and at “about a six” with medication (id.). With respect to personal grooming and various daily activities, Plaintiff indicated he could feed himself, but he could not put on socks, he occasionally struggled with putting on pants and underwear, and he could not wash his own hair (tr. 42, 44). He testified that he did not shop for groceries or cook (tr. 42). Plaintiff estimated that he could stand for five to ten minutes before having to sit, sit for fifteen to twenty minutes before having to stand, ...

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