United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Dana Leigh Garrett, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Garrett 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). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). (Doc. 11).
Ms. Garrett was forty-six years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 27-28). Her past work experiences include employment as a drywall installer, box-spring maker, construction worker, and clerk. (Tr. at 29-32). Ms. Garrett claims that she became disabled on February 16, 2009, due to neck pain, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, arthritis, depression, knee problems, and nerve damage. (Tr. at 41, 98, 130).
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 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. 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). 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 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 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. Garrett has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 18). At the first stage of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that Ms. Garrett has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's left knee osteoarthritis, cervical spine stenosis, lumbar disc herniation, and carpal tunnel syndrome are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) She further determined 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 22). The ALJ did not find Ms. Garrett's allegations of pain to be totally credible (Tr. at 15), and she determined that the plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity: the full range of sedentary work; except that she may only occasionally crouch, crawl, climb, or kneel; may not operate foot controls, and may frequently but not constantly use the upper extremities. (Tr. at 14).
According to the ALJ, Ms. Garrett is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she was a "younger individual" at the date of alleged onset, and she has a high school education and is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 17). She determined that "transferability of skills is not material to the determination of disability" in this case. (Tr. at 17-18). The ALJ found that Ms. Garrett has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of sedentary work. (Tr. at 18). Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as assembler, hand sorter, and bench packager. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff is "not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act." (Tr. at 19).
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).
Ms. Garrett alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because, she asserts, the ALJ failed to properly base her finding that plaintiff can perform some work on substantial evidence and, in reaching her conclusion, misapplied the law and regulations. (Doc. 10). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's findings did not address all of the plaintiff's impairments in combination, and did not address the effect of pain on plaintiff's ability to function. (Doc. 10, p. 8). Plaintiff points out that the allegations of pain do not require objective proof and cannot be disregarded on the sole basis that they are not supported by objective medical evidence. (Doc. 10, p. 9). She further asserts that her testimony regarding the pain must be considered truthful because there is no "inconsistency between Plaintiff's testimony and the well documented medical records." ( Id. )
The ALJ determined that Ms. Garrett could perform sedentary work with only occasional crouching, crawling, climbing, and keeling; no operation of foot controls; and frequent, but not constant, use of the upper extremities. (Tr. at 14). The Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Jeff Long. (Doc. 10, pp. 11-13). Dr. Long opined that Ms. Garrett could sit only one hour per day without a break, could stand continuously only one hour per day without a break, and could not walk for more than 15 minutes at a time. (Ex. 8F). The ALJ gave Dr. Long's functional capacity assessment little weight, based upon her determination that "the objective medical evidence of record fails to support it, not only in his own progress notes, but also in the medical evidence as a whole." (Tr. at 17).
The Court must be aware of the fact that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the 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 ...