United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Garth Tobler, 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. Tobler 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. Tobler was fifty-two years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, considered by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d) to be a "person closely approaching advanced age." (Doc. 12, p. 4). Mr. Tobler has a post-graduate degree in divinity, and his past relevant work experience is as a chaplain and pastor. ( Id. ) Mr. Tobler claims that he became disabled on February 28, 2009,  due to symptoms and limitations related to hydrocephalus, attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety, and stenosis of the back. ( Id. )
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 will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity ("RFC") is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).
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. The burden is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his or her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Tobler met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2013. (Tr. at 10). He further determined that Mr. Tobler has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset of his disability in February 2009. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff has somatoform disorder, which is considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) However, he found that the impairment neither meets nor medically equals any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 11). The ALJ did not find Mr. Tobler's allegations to be supported by his history, and he determined that he has the residual functional capacity to "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: No greater than moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace." (Tr. at 13-14).
According to the ALJ, Mr. Tobler is able to perform his past relevant work as a pastor. (Tr. at 15). He determined that the Plaintiff has "performed [his work as a pastor] long enough to obtain the skilled [sic] required to adequately perform this work." ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that the Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 28, 2009, through the date of this decision." ( 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).
The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors "are not medical opinions, ... but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e), 416.927(d). Whether the plaintiff meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court "may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005).
A. Legal Standards and Substantial Evidence
The court is under an obligation to "scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding." Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)(citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1223, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, ...