United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), claimant Donna D. Holman seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who denied Ms. Holman's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands the Commissioner's decision for further evaluation.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of review in this matter is limited. "When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, " the Court "review[s] the ALJ's factual findings with deference' and [his] legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'" Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's findings. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not "reweigh the evidence or decide the facts anew, " and the Court must "defer to the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against it." Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013).
With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
On August 12, 2009, Ms. Holman applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. (R. 11, 86). The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Holman's application on December 14, 2009. (R. 11, 59). At Ms. Holman's request, on July 26, 2011, an Administrative Law Judge conducted a hearing concerning Ms. Holman's application. (R. 11-24). Ms. Holman and an impartial vocational expert, Dr. David W. Head, testified at the hearing. (R. 11). At the time of the hearing, Ms. Holman was 46 years old, and she had a tenth grade education. (R. 35, 86). She previously worked as a general clerk, a material handler in a textile mill, a spinner in a textile mill, a cashier, a dietary aide in a nursing home, and a patient attendant in an assisted living center. (R. 52-53).
On July 26, 2011, the ALJ denied Ms. Holman's request for disability insurance benefits. (R. 11-24). The ALJ concluded that Ms. Holman "had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2007, the alleged onset date" of disability. (R. 13). The ALJ also found that Ms. Holman had the following severe impairments: mitral valve prolapse, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, possible degenerative joint disease of the cervical and lumbar spine and hips, tendonitis/arthritis of the shoulders, hypothyroidism, and depression. (R. 13). However, the ALJ determined that Ms. Holman did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 17).
The ALJ found that "[Ms. Holman] had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(b) except she is limited to noncomplex... tasks and simple one to two step procedures; no work around unprotected heights; or exposure to extremes of temperature or humidity; and no exposure to continuous vibrations." (R. 18). In making this finding, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Holman's medical impairment could reasonably be expected to cause some symptoms; however, according to the ALJ, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her pain conflicted with the RFC assessment. (R. 20).
To reach this conclusion, the ALJ considered Ms. Holman's symptoms and whether they were reasonably consistent with objective medical evidence, opinion evidence, and "other evidence" submitted. (R. 19; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529). The ALJ noted that there was no indication that Dr. Kathleen Duryea, a treating physician, "believed [Ms. Holman] to have impairments that would interfere with her ability to work on a sustained basis." (R. 20). The ALJ also reviewed reports from Dr. Terisa Thomas, a physician treating Ms. Holman for depression, hot flashes, fatigue, and headaches. (R. 13). The ALJ considered reports from Dr. Beth Hughes, who examined Ms. Holman multiple times between October 2008 and August 2010. (R. 20; 149-162; 215-247). Although Dr. Hughes diagnosed Ms. Holman with fibromyalgia in October 2008 and in December 2008, the ALJ found no reports of disabling pain or limitations as a result of the fibromyalgia. (R. 20, 155, 158). The ALJ noted that Dr. Hughes even encouraged Ms. Holman to engage in exercise and physical activity. (R. 20, 150, 155). Additionally, the ALJ reviewed records from Dr. Allison Vann, a treating physician who examined Ms. Holman in November 2010 and January 2011. (R. 20). Dr. Vann recorded Ms. Holman's history of fibromyalgia in November 2010 treatment notes, but Dr. Vann did not make an independent fibromyalgia diagnosis during any of Ms. Holman's examinations. (R. 20, 250). Dr. Vann diagnosed Ms. Holman with hypothyroidism and right elbow tendinitis. (R. 250-251). However, the ALJ concluded that:
Dr. Vann's records do not indicate that [Ms. Holman] complained of pain all over her body so severe that she was unable to work, sleep, concentrate, or do housework or yard work....
(R. 20, 250).
Furthermore, the ALJ found that Ms. Holman's daily activities were not consistent with disabling physical or mental limitations. In Ms. Holman's psychological evaluation, Dr. Wilson concluded that Ms. Holman had severe depression, and the combination of her problems "ma[d]e it unlikely that she could maintain employment in a competitive work environment." (R. 196). However, the ALJ found that Ms. Holman's own accounts of her daily activities, including caring for her son, household chores, watching television, working on the computer, shopping, going to church, and visiting family, were inconsistent with "disabling pain or limitations related to any impairment or combination of impairments." (R. 20). Further, the ALJ discredited Dr. Wilson's assessment of Ms. Holman's physical limitations because this conclusion was ...