United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Randall McGraw, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Mr. McGraw timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Mr. McGraw was thirty-four years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (Tr. at 30.) He has at least a high school education. (Tr. at 41.) His past work experiences include employment as a restaurant manager, oil lube technician, and counter clerk. (Tr. at 43-44.) Mr. McGraw claims that he became disabled on July 15, 2009 (tr. at 67), due to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cervical fusion of C-5 and C-6, and complex regional pain syndrome in his left ankle. (Tr. at 175.)
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, 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 "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he or she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the 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 on 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. pt. 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, he or 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).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him or 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 his or 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 he or 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.
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. McGraw meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB, and was insured through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 24.) She further determined that Mr. McGraw has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's complex regional pain syndrome, status-post cervical spine fusion, cervicalgia, tendonitis of the rotator cuff, and PTSD are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) However, she found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 25.) The ALJ determined that Mr. McGraw has the following RFC: sedentary work with a sit/stand at will option, except only occasional balancing, climbing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, reaching overhead, and co-worker interaction, with no ladders, operation of foot controls, or public interaction. (Tr. at 26-27.)
The ALJ found that Mr. McGraw is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, and that he is a "younger individual, " as that term is defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. (Tr. at 30.) She determined that the transferability of job skills is not material to this case. ( Id. ) Using a vocational expert's ("VE's") testimony that, given the Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, he would be able to perform the requirements of assembler (60, 000 jobs), hand packager (225, 000 jobs), and sorter (52, 000 jobs), and in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2), she determined that Plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. at 31.) The ALJ concluded that a finding of "not disabled" was appropriate under the framework of the above-cited rule. ( Id. )
II. 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). 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. "The 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. Fed. 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 "despite 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).
Mr. McGraw sets forth several sub-arguments in support of an overarching argument that the ALJ should have found at step three that his complex regional pain syndrome medically equaled a listed impairment.
Step three of the evaluation process calls for the ALJ to make a determination of whether the claimant's medically determinable impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the ALJ finds that the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of a Listing, then the claimant is found to be disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. It is the claimant's burden to show that his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. See Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 229 (11th Cir. 1991). The regulations make clear that, as a general matter, the claimant must provide the evidence to support his claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(c), 404.1516. "For a claimant to qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, is equivalent' to a listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a); Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1224. "A claimant cannot qualify for benefits under the equivalence' step by showing that the overall functional impact of his unlisted impairment or combination of impairments is as severe as that of a listed impairment." Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531-32.
In this case, Plaintiff did not meet his burden of showing that his complex regional pain syndrome medically equaled one of the Listings. As an initial matter, Plaintiff failed to identify a listed impairment(s) that his condition purportedly equals. While Plaintiff may believe that his complex regional pain syndrome medically equals one of the listed impairments, it was his burden to present evidence to show how this impairment medically equals a particular Listing. Even if Plaintiff had identified one of the Listings, he did not present evidence showing that his complex regional pain syndrome is equal in severity to the requirements in any listed impairment, nor does he present evidence establishing that his condition medically equals one of the specific Listings discussed by the ALJ. Plaintiff also fails to describe how he is impacted by complex regional pain syndrome, identifying only the symptoms "typically report[ed]" by patients experiencing complex regional pain syndrome. This is not sufficient to establish presumptive ...