Brooks v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Corey L. Maze on 4/26/2021. (SRD)
2021 Apr-26 AM 09:52
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Commissioner of the Social
Sharon Brooks seeks disability and disability insurance benefits from the
Social Security Administration (“SSA”) based on several impairments. The SSA
denied Brooks’s application in an opinion written by an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). Brooks argues: (1) Grid 201.04 entitled her to a partially favorable decision
with benefits; and, (2) the ALJ erred in finding that she could perform her past work.
As detailed below, the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and substantial
evidence supports his decision. So the court will AFFIRM the SSA’s denial of
Statement of the Case
Brooks’s Disability, as told to the ALJ
Brooks was 54 years old at her alleged disability onset date and 58 years old
at the time of the ALJ’s hearing decision. R. 138, 32–33. Brooks completed three
years of college and has past relevant work as a receptionist, insurance clerk, and
administrative clerk. R. 31–32, 187–88.
At the ALJ hearing, Brooks testified that she has had knee problems for
several years and that she had a complete knee replacement of her right knee. R. 947.
Brooks then testified that more recently her left knee had been giving her problems
and that she suffered from both neck pain and vertigo. R. 948–50.
Brooks lives with her nephew in a one-story house, and she spends most days
watching television and talking on the phone with her sisters. R. 941, 959–60. After
standing or sitting for long periods, Brooks must prop her legs up and put ice packs
on them. R. 955–56. But Brooks gets ready by herself, does her own laundry, helps
her nephew around his house, and does her own grocery shopping. R. 958–59.
The SSA has created the following five-step process to determine whether an
individual is disabled and thus entitled to benefits under the Social Security Act:
The 5-Step Test
Is the Claimant engaged in substantial
If yes, claim denied.
If no, proceed to Step 2.
Does the Claimant suffer from a severe,
medically-determinable impairment or
combination of impairments?
If no, claim denied.
If yes, proceed to Step 3.
Does the Step 2 impairment meet the
criteria of an impairment listed in 20
CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1?
If yes, claim granted.
If no, proceed to Step 4.
*Determine Residual Functional Capacity*
Does the Claimant possess the residual
functional capacity to perform the
requirements of his past relevant work?
If yes, claim denied.
If no, proceed to Step 5.
Is the Claimant able to do any other
work considering his residual functional
capacity, age, education, and work
If yes, claim denied.
If no, claim granted.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 404.1520(b) (Step 1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (Step
2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526 (Step 3); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(ef) (Step 4); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g) (Step 5). As shown by the gray-shaded box,
there is an intermediate step between Steps 3 and 4 that requires the ALJ to determine
a claimant’s “residual functional capacity,” which is the claimant’s ability to perform
physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis.
Brooks’s Application and the ALJ’s Decision
The SSA reviews applications for disability benefits in three stages: (1) initial
determination, including reconsideration; (2) review by an ALJ; and (3) review by
the SSA Appeals Council. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1-4).
Brooks applied for disability insurance benefits and a period of disability in
January 2017, claiming that she was unable to work because of various ailments,
including reconstructive surgery of weight bearing joint, obesity, ischemic heart
disease, essential hypertension, glaucoma, asthma, and thyroid cancer. After
receiving an initial denial in April 2017, Brooks requested a hearing, which the ALJ
conducted in February 2019. The ALJ ultimately issued an opinion denying
Brooks’s claims in April 2019. R. 24–33.
At Step 1, the ALJ determined that Brooks was not engaged in substantial
gainful activity and thus her claims would progress to Step 2. R. 26.
At Step 2, the ALJ determined that Brooks suffered from the following severe
impairments: reconstructive surgery of weight bearing joint, obesity, and ischemic
heart disease. R. 26–27.
At Step 3, the ALJ found that none of Brooks’s impairments, individually or
combined, met or equaled the severity of any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 27–28. Thus, the ALJ next had to determine
Brooks’s residual functional capacity.
The ALJ determined that Brooks had the residual functional capacity to
perform light work with these added limitations:
• Brooks can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs and can never climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
• Brooks can frequently balance and can occasionally stoop, kneel,
crouch, or crawl;
• Brooks must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme
heat, wetness, humidity, vibration, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary
• Brooks must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights, unprotected
moving mechanical parts, and dangerous machinery; and,
• Brooks must alternate sitting and standing every 20 to 30 minutes
throughout the work day to change position for a brief positional change
of less than five minutes but without leaving the work station.
At Step 4, the ALJ found that Brooks could perform her past relevant work as
a receptionist, insurance clerk, and administrative clerk. R. 31–32. Alternatively, the
ALJ went on to Step 5 and determined that Brooks could perform other jobs, such
as office helper, Cashier II, and garment folder, that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy. R. 32–33. Thus, the ALJ found that Brooks was not disabled
under the Social Security Act. R. 33.
Brooks requested an Appeals Council review of the ALJ’s decision. R. 1–3.
The Appeals Council will review an ALJ’s decision for only a few reasons, and the
Appeals Council found no such reason under the rules to review the ALJ’s decision.
As a result, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the SSA Commissioner,
and it is the decision subject to this court’s review.
Standard of Review
This court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The scope of the court’s review is limited to (a) whether the record
contains substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and (b) whether the ALJ
applied the correct legal standards, see Stone v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App’x
839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155,
1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158.
Brooks makes two arguments for why the ALJ erred in finding her not
disabled. First, Brooks argues that Grid rule 201.04 entitled her to a partially
favorable decision. Second, Brooks asserts that the ALJ erred in finding that she
could perform her past relevant work. The court will address each argument in turn.
Grid rule 201.04 doesn’t apply.
Brooks first asserts that Grid rule 201.04 directed the ALJ to find that Brooks
became disabled when she turned 55. But as the Commissioner points out, Grid rule
201.04 applies to individuals limited to a full range of sedentary work, not the range
of light work that the ALJ found Brooks could perform. See 20 CFR Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 2, Table 1, § 201.04. And the ALJ did not rely on the Grids to
deny Brooks’s application for benefits because he found at Step 4 of the evaluation
process that she could perform her past relevant work. R. 31–32. In her reply brief,
Brooks concedes that the finding that she can perform her past relevant work
precludes a finding under the Grids. So the court finds that there was no error in the
ALJ’s failure to apply Grid rule 201.04.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Brooks could
perform her past relevant work.
Brooks next argues that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record as to
the physical demands of her past work. ALJs have “a basic duty to develop a full
and fair record.” Holder v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 F. App’x 896, 899 (11th Cir. 2019).
And if “there is no evidence of the physical requirements and demands of the
claimant’s past work and no detailed description of the required duties was solicited
or proffered, the ALJ cannot properly determine the nature of the claimant’s past
work.” Id. (quotations omitted). For example, the Eleventh Circuit has found the
record insufficiently developed when there was “no evidence concerning whether
the claimant used equipment, the size and weight of items she was required to use,
whether she scrubbed the floors or merely dusted, or whether she was required to
move furniture in her past work.” Id. (cleaned up).
1. Development of the record: The ALJ looked to Brooks’s work history
report, a vocational expert’s testimony at the ALJ hearing, and the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles (“DOT”) to determine that Brooks had the residual functional
capacity to perform her past work as a receptionist, insurance clerk, and
administrative clerk. R. 31–32. The work history report asked Brooks to list all jobs
she had had in the past 15 years and to describe each job. R. 165–68. The form then
instructed Brooks to answer how many total hours in each day her jobs required her
to walk; stand; sit; climb; stoop; kneel; crouch; crawl; handle, grab, or grasp big
objects; reach; and write, type, or handle small objects. Id. The form also asked
Brooks to explain the lifting and carrying requirements of each job and whether the
jobs required her to use machines, tools, or equipment; technical knowledge or skills;
or to write and complete reports. Id.
Brooks answered these questions in detail. For example, she explained that
her job as an administrative clerk required her to carry outgoing mail and a package
down a flight of stairs. R. 168. She also noted that as a receptionist she sat, wrote,
typed, and handled small objects for 8 hours a day. R. 167. And Brooks responded
that as an insurance clerk she walked/stood for 1 hour a day and sat for the remaining
7 hours of the day. R. 166.
When asked at the ALJ hearing about the jobs listed in Brooks’s work history
report, the vocational expert characterized Brooks’s work as a receptionist and
insurance clerk as semi-skilled, sedentary work. R. 967. She characterized Brooks’s
work as an administrative clerk as semi-skilled, light work. Id. The vocational expert
then referred the ALJ to the listings for those jobs in the DOT and testified that a
hypothetical person with Brooks’s residual functional capacity could perform her
past relevant work. R. 967, 968–69.
Brooks’s work history report, the vocational expert’s testimony, and the
DOT’s descriptions of Brooks’s past work provided “enough evidence . . . for the
ALJ to compare [Brooks’s] current abilities to the physical demands of her previous
employment.” Holder, 771 F. App’x at 900. And though Brooks argues otherwise,
the ALJ made specific factual findings about the physical and mental demands of
her past work. For example, the ALJ found that both the DOT and Brooks’s selfreport supported a finding that her work as a receptionist and insurance clerk was
sedentary work and that her work as an administrative clerk was light work. R. 31–
32. The ALJ also found that both the vocational expert’s testimony and his own
review of the record supported the finding that a person with Brooks’s residual
functional capacity could perform the physical and mental demands of her past work
as actually and generally performed. R. 32. The court thus determines that the ALJ
satisfied his duty to develop the record as to the demands of Brooks’s past work.
2. Brooks’s ability to perform past work: So the court must decide whether
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Brooks could perform her past
work. Brooks argues that her testimony at the ALJ hearing and several of her medical
records show that the ALJ erred in finding that she could perform her past work.
Doc. 13 at 4–12.
But other record evidence suggests that Brooks has a greater capacity than she
alleged at the ALJ hearing. As the ALJ explained, while the consultative examiner
found that Brooks “could have impairments of functions involving standing for long
periods, walking long distance, climbing, squatting, bending, overhead activities,
pushing, and pulling and working at heights,” he determined that Brooks “does not
have limitation of functions involving sitting, handling, hearing, or speaking.” R.
545. And the state agency physician found that Brooks could perform a narrow range
of light work. Plus, several of Brooks’s medical records show that her ambulation
and gait were normal, she responded well to physical therapy, and her ischemia was
Having reviewed the record, the court determines that a reasonable person
could conclude that the evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Brooks could
perform her past work as a receptionist, insurance clerk, and administrative clerk.
So substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Brooks could perform
her past relevant work. See Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158.
In summary, the court has reviewed the parties’ briefs, the ALJ’s findings,
and the record evidence and finds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards
and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. So the SSA’s denial of
benefits is due to be AFFIRMED. The court will enter a separate final order that
closes this case.
DONE this April 26, 2021.
COREY L. MAZE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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