United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
SHIRLEY E. EDGE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
Plaintiff Shirley E. Edge ("Edge" or "Plaintiff") appeals from the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Edge timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the decision of the ALJ is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Edge was forty-two years old at the time of the ALJ's decision, and she has a tenth grade education. (Tr. at 57, 159.) Her past work experiences include employment as a cashier. ( Id. at 169.) Edge claims that she became disabled on July 14, 2010, due to degenerative disc disease, herniation, bulging disc with lumbar and cervical radiculopathy, major depressive disorder, and anxiety with migraine headaches. ( Id. at 154.)
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 determined that Edge had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. at 25.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, left elbow lateral epicondylitis, pain disorder, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and migraines are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) However, the ALJ 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. ( Id. at 26.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC: sedentary exertional work with a sit-stand option at will as long as she is not more than 10% off task; she can occasionally reach overhead and occasionally push and pull; she should avoid concentrated exposure to bright lights and pulmonary irritants such as flumes, odors, dusts, and gases; she is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a low stress job defined as few if any changes in work environment and few if any work-related decisions; she is restricted to no interaction with the public and only brief and superficial interaction with co-workers. ( Id. at 28.)
According to the ALJ, Edge has no past relevant work experience, she is a "younger individual, " and she has a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. ( Id. at 37.) The ALJ determined that "transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work." ( Id. ) The ALJ, utilizing a vocational expert ("VE") and employing Medical-Vocational Rule 201.25 as a guideline, found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national and regional economy that she is capable of performing, such as inspector, sorter, and packager. ( Id. at 38.) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since July 14, 2010, the date the application was filed." ( 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. "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).
Edge alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. First, she believes that the ALJ erred in giving little weight to the opinion of Dr. John Haney, a psychologist, who was a one-time consultative examiner in this case. (Doc. 10 at 5.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's physical RFC findings are not based on substantial evidence. ( Id. at 7.)
A. Consultative Examiner's Diagnoses
To determine the weight given to a medical opinion, an ALJ must consider several factors, including the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, the evidence presented to support the opinion, the consistency of the opinion with other evidence, and the specialization of the medical professional. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). See Davis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 449 F.Appx. 828, 832 (11th Cir. 2011) (stating that the ALJ will give more weight to the medical opinions of a source who has examined the plaintiff and opinions that are supported by medical signs and findings and are consistent with the overall "record as a whole"). Within the classification of acceptable medical sources are the following different types of sources which are entitled to different weights of opinion: 1) a treating source, which is defined in the regulations as "your physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who provides you, or has provided you, with medical treatment or evaluation and who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with you;" 2) a non-treating source, which is defined as "a physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who has examined you but does not have, or did not have, an ongoing treatment relationship with you;" and 3) a non-examining source, which is a "a physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who has not examined you but provides a medical or other opinion in your case... includ[ing] State agency medical and psychological consultants...." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1502. The regulations and case law set forth a general preference for treating sources' opinions over those of non-treating sources, and non-treating sources over non-examining sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2); Ryan v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 939, 942 (11th Cir. 1985). However, an ALJ "may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion." McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 F.Appx. 410, 418-19 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Bloodsworth v. ...