MALONE v. COLVIN
ORDER re 1 Complaint filed by RANDY A MALONE. The decision of the Social Security Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Ordered by US Magistrate Judge STEPHEN HYLES on 3-31-15. (mpm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
RANDY A. MALONE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO. 3:14-CV-85-MSH
Social Security Appeal
The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (ALJ’s) determination, denied Plaintiff’s application for disability benefits,
finding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and
Regulations. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner’s decision was in error and seeks
review under the relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). All
administrative remedies have been exhausted. Both parties filed their written consents
for all proceedings to be conducted by the United States Magistrate Judge, including the
entry of a final judgment directly appealable to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination of
whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards
were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam).
“Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a
preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this
court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.
3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court’s role in
reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may
neither decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner.1 Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F. 3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must,
however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision.
Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam). The court must
scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s
Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).
However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it
must be affirmed if substantial evidence supports it. Id.
The Plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that he is unable to perform his
previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001 (11th Cir. 1986). The Plaintiff’s burden
is a heavy one and is so stringent that it has been described as bordering on the
unrealistic. Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1083 (5th Cir. 1981).2 A Plaintiff
seeking Social Security disability benefits must demonstrate that he suffers from an
Credibility determinations are left to the Commissioner and not to the courts. Carnes v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). It is also up to the Commissioner and not to the
courts to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir.
1986) (per curiam); see also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986).
In Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc), the
Eleventh Circuit adopted as binding precedent all decision of the former Fifth Circuit rendered
prior to October 1, 1981.
impairment that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a
twelve-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In addition to meeting the requirements of
these statutes, in order to be eligible for disability payments, a Plaintiff must meet the
requirements of the Commissioner’s regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority
given in the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 et seq.
Under the Regulations, the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure to determine
if a Plaintiff is disabled. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff is
If not, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff has an
impairment which prevents the performance of basic work activities. Id. Second, the
Commissioner determines the severity of the Plaintiff’s impairment or combination of
impairments. Id. Third, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff’s severe
impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the
Regulations (the “Listing”).
Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the
Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) can meet the physical and mental
demands of past work. Id. Fifth and finally, the Commissioner determines whether the
Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience prevent
the performance of any other work. In arriving at a decision, the Commissioner must
consider the combined effects of all of the alleged impairments, without regard to
whether each, if considered separately, would be disabling. Id. The Commissioner’s
failure to apply correct legal standards to the evidence is grounds for reversal. Id.
Whether the ALJ’s determination at step 5 that jobs exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that Plaintiff can perform is properly supported by
substantial evidence in the form of testimony from the VE.
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income on February 4, 2011, alleging disability as of May 17, 2007. Tr. 13, ECF No. 132. Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely
requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ conducted a
hearing on November 13, 2012 and a supplemental hearing on March 1, 2013. Id.
Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 24, 2013. Tr. 1324. The Appeals Council ultimately denied Plaintiff’s Request for Review on July 22,
2014. Tr. 1-3. This appeal followed.
Statement of Facts and Evidence
After consideration of the written evidence and the hearing testimony in this case,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity as
defined by the Act since the alleged onset date. Tr. 15. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had
the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder status post three
surgeries, obesity, status post club foot repair as a child, degenerative disc disease of the
cervical and lumbar spine, and depression. Id. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff
had no impairments or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the
residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work with certain
exertional and nonexertional limitations. Tr. 17. Of particular consequence to these
proceedings, the ALJ found that:
[Plaintiff’s] ability to perform the full range of light work is compromised
because [his] left upper extremity, which is nondominant, is limited to
pushing, pulling or lifting no more than 10 pounds on its own. In addition,
the left upper extremity cannot engage in overhead reaching and can only
occasionally be placed in front of him or laterally, such as on a table.
Further, the left upper extremity should only be used occasionally for
handling or fingering.
Tr. 17. Plaintiff had a wide variety of past relevant work but the ALJ found that he could
not return to his past relevant work. Tr. 22. Plaintiff was a younger individual at age 47
on the alleged disability onset date, but subsequently changed age category to closely
approaching advanced age. Id. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and the
ability to communicate in English.
The ALJ found that if Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the full range of light
work, the Medical-Vocational Rules (Grids) would direct a finding of “not disabled” per
Rules 202.20 and 202.13.
However, because Plaintiff’s ability to perform all or
substantially all of the requirements of light work has been impeded by additional
limitations, the ALJ asked the VE whether jobs exist in the national economy for an
individual with Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC. The ALJ found
that the VE’s testimony supported a finding that Plaintiff can perform the requirements of
subassembly of electric equipment (DOT # 729.684-054), assembly of molded frames in
the optical goods industry (DOT # 713.684-014), and marker of garments (DOT #
781.687-042) and that this work exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
The ALJ therefore found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the
Act from May 17, 2007 through the date of the decision. Id.
In his brief on appeal, Plaintiff asserts one contention of error on the part of the
ALJ. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in relying on the VE’s testimony as support
for the step 5 finding that Plaintiff can perform the jobs cited because the ALJ’s
hypothetical question did not adequately take into account the left arm limitations that he
later imposed in the RFC. Pl.’s Br. 13, ECF No. 15. The Commissioner responds that
Plaintiff has not shown that the hypothetical question was inadequate or put forth any
evidence other than speculation that Plaintiff is incapable of performing the jobs that the
VE testified Plaintiff could perform. Comm’r’s Br. 7, ECF No. 16.
The burden of proof at step 5 is critical to the determination in this case. Once the
plaintiff proves that he can no longer perform his past relevant work, the burden shifts to
the Commissioner “to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy which,
given the [plaintiff’s] impairments, the [plaintiff] can perform.” Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d
1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987). Where the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (Grids) do not
provide a definitive result based on the plaintiff’s specific profile, the Commissioner's
preferred method of demonstrating that he can perform other jobs is through the
testimony of a VE. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). In order
for a VE's testimony to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical
question which comprises all of the plaintiff’s impairments. See generally McSwain v.
Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619–20 (11th Cir. 1987). Once the Commissioner shows that jobs
exist in substantial numbers in the national economy that the plaintiff can perform, the
burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that he cannot perform the suggested jobs.
Williams v. Barnhart, 140 F. App’x 932, 937 (11th Cir. 2005); Long v. Shalala, 902 F.
Supp. 1544, 1546 (M.D. Fla. 1995).
As stated above, the ALJ limited Plaintiff’s RFC with regard to the use of his left
arm to “only occasionally be placed in front of him or laterally, such as on a table.” Tr.
17. The issue in this case is whether the ALJ’s hypothetical to the VE, which resulted in
testimony that Plaintiff could perform the three jobs outlined, adequately described this
limitation. The hypothetical stated that Plaintiff “[c]an occasionally put it [his left arm]
in front of him and laterally. He can work at a table. That’s okay.” Tr. 83. Plaintiff
argues that the phrasing of the question to the VE implies that Plaintiff can use his left
arm at a table unrestricted, but the RFC limits this to only “occasionally.” In response to
a different hypothetical posed by Plaintiff’s attorney, the VE testified that Plaintiff could
not do those jobs if he could not hold his hands in front of him on a table for extended
periods of time. Tr. 87-88. However, he also said that if Plaintiff “can use both hands,
with one simply holding an item . . . not doing anything else and do the fitting with his
dominant hand or the placement of the item in the correct place, if he can do that, he can
perform those jobs.” Tr. 88.
Although potentially vague, the ALJ’s hypothetical to the VE adequately takes the
occasional use of Plaintiff’s left arm at a table into account, and therefore the VE’s
testimony that there are jobs in the national economy that such a hypothetical individual
could perform constitutes substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s determination. The
burden is on Plaintiff to prove that he cannot perform the jobs that the VE testified a
hypothetical person with Plaintiff’s same profile and characteristics could perform.
Plaintiff argues that the VE’s testimony in response to the attorney’s question shows that
he cannot perform these jobs and that the VE’s testimony is in conflict with the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles’ definition of the three jobs. However, none of the
definitions specifies that a person must be capable of more than occasional use of the
nondominant arm at a table in order to perform them, and the ALJ was permitted to rely
on the VE’s testimony that Plaintiff would be able to perform those jobs. Plaintiff did not
put forth any evidence to the contrary, and therefore his contention of error is without
WHEREFORE, for the foregoing reasons, it is ORDERED that the determination
of the Social Security Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
SO ORDERED, this 31st day of March, 2015.
/s/ Stephen Hyles
UNTED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?