United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
SONJA F. BIVINS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Loretha Ann Nelson (hereinafter "Plaintiff") brings this action seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and 1381, et seq. On April 25, 2014, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 20). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
I. Procedural History
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on February 22, 2010. (Tr. at 67, 194). Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since January 1, 2009, due to back problems, right lung problems, knee problems, and right hand problems. (Id. at 67, 198, 228). Plaintiff subsequently argued before the Agency that she also was disabled as a result of post traumatic stress disorder. (Id. at 228). Plaintiff's applications were denied and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Joseph F. Dent (hereinafter "ALJ") on July 22, 2011. (Id. at 56). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id. at 66). A vocational expert ("VE") also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 91). On July 22, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 56). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 17, 2013. (Id. at 1). The parties waived oral argument (Doc. 22) and agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
II. Issue on Appeal
Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment?
III. Factual Background
Plaintiff was born on October 28, 1966, and was forty-four years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on June 21, 2011. (Tr. 61, 67). Plaintiff testified that she graduated from high school and attended one year of college. (Id. at 67, 199). In her Work History Report provided to the Agency, Plaintiff stated that she worked as a machine operator and warehouse worker at Bush Hog for approximately twenty-two years and served in the National Guard for twenty-one years. (Id. at 200, 218). Plaintiff stated in her Function Report that she takes care of her daughter, which includes getting her ready for school, escorting her to and from the bus stop, ironing her clothes, and combing her hair. (Id. at 76, 209-10, 212). In addition, Plaintiff drives, shops, cooks, performs household chores such as laundry and washing dishes, and handles her own finances. (Id. at 211-12). Her interests include sports and spending time on her computer. (Id. at 82, 213). In addition, she visits her mother and goes to church every Sunday. (Id. at 79, 213).
Plaintiff testified at her hearing that she stopped working in March 2009 when she was laid off as part of a personnel reduction at her company. (Id. 68). She stated that she had "a little mental problem" during the time that she worked, i.e., noise "g[o]t on [her] nerves, " and she liked to work by herself. (Id. at 68-69, 73). According to Plaintiff, she has post traumatic stress disorder from serving in Desert Storm. (Id. at 83). Plaintiff testified that her medications include several pain medications, a muscle relaxer, anxiety medication, and an anti-depressant, some of which make her drowsy. (Id. at 74, 76).
A. Standard of Review
In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. Martin v. Sullivan , 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen , 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan , 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler , 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance" and consists of "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion."). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen , 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel , 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).
An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as the "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 also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
In the case sub judice, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2009, the alleged onset date, and that she has the severe impairments of post traumatic stress disorder and adjustment disorder with depressed mood. (Tr. 34-35). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 35).
The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (hereinafter "RFC") to perform sedentary work, limited to "simple, routine, and repetitive one-to-three step tasks in a low stress job, defined as having only occasional decision making, occasional changes in the work setting, occasional interaction with coworkers, and no interaction with the public." (Id. at 38). The ALJ also determined that while Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the alleged symptoms were not credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with the RFC. (Id. at 54).
Given Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is incapable of performing her past work as a machine operator, warehouse worker, or stock clerk. (Id. at 55). However, utilizing the testimony of a VE, the ALJ concluded that considering Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for a range of sedentary work, as well as her age, education and work experience, there are other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform, such as "dowel inspector" and "cuff folder, " both of which are classified as sedentary and unskilled. (Id. at 55-56). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id.).
Pertinent to this appeal are the findings made by the ALJ which informed his decision that Plaintiff is not disabled. In determining that Plaintiff did not meet any Listing, the ALJ made the following relevant findings:
The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d) and 416.926)....
The claimant's mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06. In making this finding, the undersigned has considered whether the "paragraph B" criteria are satisfied. To satisfy the "paragraph B" criteria, the mental impairments must result in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. A marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration, means three episodes within 1 year, or an average of once every four months, each lasting for at least 2 weeks. The undersigned notes that the claimant's treating psychiatrist [Dr. Maria Tabino] authored an opinion to the contrary (Exhibit 12F). However, that opinion was in stark contrast with the medical and objective evidence of record, including [Dr. Tabino's] own treatment records. The inconsistency is discussed below along with all relevant treatment evidence. For purposes here, her opinion warranted and received little weight.
Accordingly, the undersigned finds that in activities of daily living, the claimant has mild restriction. She is capable of initiating and participating in activities including cleaning, shopping, driving, and maintaining a residence for herself and her daughter, independent of supervision or direction. While her impairments may interfere with complex activities, her performance of a simple routine is appropriate, effective, and sustainable.
In social functioning, the claimant has moderate difficulties. The claimant is able to initiate social contacts, communicate clearly, demonstrate cooperative behaviors, and participate in group activities. Nonetheless, the claimant insists that she has an inherent inability to be around others. Her treating psychiatrist [Dr. Tabino] as well as the State agency psychologist [Dr. Joanna Koulianos, Ph.D.] concurs. As the State agency psychologist found limitation and provided opinion as to the modifications that are necessary for her to perform simple mental work activity, the undersigned accepts her opinion.
With regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties. She can sustain focused attention and concentration sufficiently long enough to permit the timely and appropriate completion of tasks commonly found in routine and repetitive work settings. However, the evidence of record reveals that she has one year of college and a nurse assistant certificate. The undersigned believes that she may be capable of more detailed and complex work activity. There is no evidence of any depreciation in cognitive or intellectual capacity such that the claimant would function in a diminished activity after reaching the stated measures. Nonetheless, the State agency psychologist concluded that the claimant should be limited to routine and repetitive work. As her findings are more favorable to the claimant, and allow for work activity, the undersigned saw no reason to ignore her assessment.
As for episodes of decompensation, the claimant has experienced no episodes of decompensation, which have been of extended duration. The record does not indicate any loss of adaptive functioning.
Because the claimant's mental impairments do not cause at least two "marked" limitations or one "marked" limitation and "repeated" episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration, the "paragraph B" criteria are not satisfied.
The undersigned has also considered whether the "paragraph C" criteria are satisfied. In this case, the evidence fails to establish the presence of the "paragraph C" criteria because there is no establishment of repeated episodes of decompensation, propensity toward ...