United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Deidra Dawn Rivers, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The denial of benefits was based not upon a denial of her claim that she is disabled, but on the determination that she did not become disabled until September 1, 2011, and that her insured status expired on December 31, 2009. Ms. Rivers timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ' 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Ms. Rivers was 50 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision, and she has a high school education and one year of college. (Tr. at 43-44.) Her past work experience was working at a framing gallery where she framed, matted, and mounted artwork as part of an assembly line. (Tr. at 44-45.) Ms. Rivers claims that she became disabled on April 1, 2004, due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, back problems, and knee problems. (Tr. at 43.) In addition, Ms. Rivers is morbidly obese, has carpal tunnel syndrome, is diabetic, and has depression and anxiety. (Tr. at 47-47). She has more recently developed neck pain as a result of cervical disc degeneration. (Tr. at 51).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of 18, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is Adoing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Rivers was not disabled prior to September 1, 2011, but became disabled on that date, and that her disability continued through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 20). He further found that the insured status requirements were not met. (Tr. at 20). The ALJ determined that Ms. Rivers met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009. (Tr. at 22). He then determined that Ms. Rivers had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 22.) According to the ALJ, since the alleged onset date of disability, April 1, 2004, the claimant's asthma, COPD, morbid obesity, lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post laminectomy (1998), mild left knee osteoarthritis (June 2008), mild right foot planer spur and degenerative changes (June 2009), mild right knee osteoarthritis (August 2010), and depression with mixed anxiety are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 22.) He found that, since September 1, 2011, the claimant had, in addition to the severe impairments listed above, severe impairments of Acervical and thoracic spine degenerative disc disease (2011) with right occipital neuralgia and migraine...." (Tr. at 22). He found that Ms. Rivers' history of hypertension and hypotension, diabetes mellitus, carpal tunnel syndrome, status post carpal tunnel release on the right, status post left knee arthroscopy and status post lap-band surgery for obesity were non-severe impairments. (Tr. at 23). He further found that claimant's mental impairments did not meet the criteria of an applicable mental disorder listing. (Tr. at 24.)
The ALJ did not find Ms. Rivers' statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms to be credible prior to September 1, 2011. (Tr. at 27). He determined that, prior to September 1, 2011, she had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of sedentary work, except that she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, humidity, and pulmonary irritants, should have no exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery, could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb stairs and ramps, but could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Tr. at 24.)
Moving on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Rivers is not is able to perform her past relevant work, but that, prior to September 1, 2011, as the vocational expert testified, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that claimant could have performed. (Tr. at 33). Finally, the ALJ concluded that since September 1, 2011, Ms. Rivers has been disabled. (Tr. at 34). Because the date of onset determined by the ALJ was beyond the claimant's date of insured status, Ms. Rivers was found to be ineligible for DIB.
Standard of Review
This Court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is Amore than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004), quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997). The Court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. AThe substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and >the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'" Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Federal Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for Adespite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Ms. Rivers asserts that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ failed to properly consider the evidence relating to the severity of her conditions and symptoms prior to September 1, 2011. (Doc. 11, pp. 12-21). In order to be eligible for benefits under Title II, the claimant must have demonstrated that she was disabled on or before the last date on which she was insured - December 31, 2009. See Miller v. Commission of Soc. Sec. Admin., 280 Fed.Appx. 870, 871 (11th Cir. 2008), citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 1990); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A). To establish the existence of the disability, the claimant must have shown that her impairment or combination of impairments meet or exceed the requirements of a listed impairment from Appendix 1 of Subpart P, 20 C.F.R. § 404.
The ALJ supported his finding that Ms. Rivers became disabled on September 1, 2011, based on the date that imaging test results first showed the degenerative disc disease and spondylosis in the claimant's cervical spine. It is clear, however, that Ms. Rivers had been experiencing lower back pain before her laminectomy in 1998, and that the pain had not resolved before 2009. She went to the emergency room in June of 2007 and again in April 2008 complaining of severe back pain (Exh. 17F, pp. 710-715, 678-679), and she reported back pain as one of her chief complaints even when being examined for acute symptoms of pneumonia. (Exh. 17F, p. 666). In addition, the "unremarkable" lumbar spine imaging results upon which the ALJ relied apparently were only x-rays (Exh. 17F, p. 715), and there is no indication that MRIs or more sensitive imaging tests (like the MRI that revealed the cervical spine abnormalities) had ever been ordered. (Exh. 17F, p. 745).
Finally, while the ALJ interpreted the pain from the cervical discs to be the additional objective medical evidence that put the claimant Aover the edge" into disability, his conclusion that the cervical issues were the tipping point is not supported by substantial evidence. In fact, the conclusion is contrary to the claimant's testimony. Consider the following exchange:
Q: So your cervical and upper thoracic area would be more problematic for you now [than your lower back problems]. Would that be a correct statement?
A: No, sir. I think, I mean my lower back is a problem but I know what I can do from that. I know, you know, mostly if I, if I stand up too long or if I sit in one position too long, I know that I'm going to pay for that the next day or two. But as far as the cervical and the, I'm having injections on my neck right now and I'm still having to do the, the pain pills and, you know, different things for that. Sometimes ice helps, sometimes heat helps. But as far as the middle back, the I don't know [what] you call it, I don't know what it's called, in the middle.
A: I'm ...