United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
JOHN E. OTT, Chief Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Myra Nicole Evans brings this action, through counsel, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI"). (Doc. 1). The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference dated January 14, 2013. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), FED. R. CIV. P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI on January 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning June 28, 2010. (R. 20, 133, 135). Her claims were denied initially. ( Id. ) Thereafter, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on November 22, 2011. (R. 39). Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 20). He also found that she had a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with some limitations. (R. 24). In light of these findings, the ALJ issued a decision on March 30, 2012, denying Plaintiff's request for DIB and SSI. ( Id. at 20-34).
Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. She submitted additional argument on July 3, 2012. (R. 214-17). The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review on May 9, 2013. (R. 1). Therefore, the ALJ's decision represents the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. ) Plaintiff thereafter timely filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asserting that the findings of the Commissioner are not based upon substantial evidence and that improper legal standards were applied. (Doc. 1).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court's role is a narrow one: "Our review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], rather [it] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)) (internal quotations and other citation omitted). "The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence." Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1221 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990); Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987)). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citations omitted). As just noted, conclusions of law made by the Commissioner are reviewed de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. "No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law." Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).
A. The Facts
At the time of the decision in this case, Plaintiff was forty years old with a high school education. (R. 164, 166). She has past relevant work as a cashier and salesperson. ( Id. at 33). The ALJ determined she is able to perform her past work as a cashier. ( Id. ) She has not worked since June 28, 2010, the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 22).
2. ALJ Findings
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe physical impairments of arthritis, back pain, generalized anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, and major depressive disorder. (R. 22-23). He also found that Plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any listing. ( Id. ) He further found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with some postural limitations that are not at issue in this matter, and that she (1) could not work around unprotected heights or dangerous or moving machinery, (2) could maintain attention and concentration up to two hours at a time if all customary breaks were given, (3) could understand, remember, and carry out simple work instructions, (4) should have only casual, non-confrontational contact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors, and (5) could handle changes in the workplace if they are introduced gradually and are well explained. (R. 24). As noted above, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could return to her past relevant work as a cashier. ( Id. at 33). He also concluded, based on vocational expert ("VE") testimony, that there was other work in significant numbers that Plaintiff could perform. ( Id. at 33-34, 67-68). His final conclusion was that Plaintiff was not disabled. ( Id. at 34).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in that he rejected a treating therapist's opinion in favor of a vocationally inadequate assessment by a non-examining reviewing physician. (Doc. 11 at 5). As a part of this challenge, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in (1) giving dispositive weight to the opinion of a non-examining reviewing physician, (2) applying an erroneous hypothetical to the VE, (3) rejecting the opinion of a treating mental health therapist, and (4) failing to develop a record by obtaining acceptable medical input before deriving the RFC. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's evaluation of the evidence and findings are supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 12 at 4-21).
As noted above, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work with certain limitations. (R. 24). Plaintiff's over-arching challenge to that determination is that this conclusion is wrong because her RFC is not based on medical opinion evidence. (Doc. 11 at 6-8).
An RFC is an "individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis... [which] means 8 hours a day for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996). It "involves determining the claimant's ability to do work in spite of his [or her] impairments in consideration of all relevant evidence." Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). It is the responsibility of the Commissioner to determine a claimant's RFC. See Robinson v. Astrue, 365 F.Appx. 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010) (stating that "the task of determining a claimant's residual functional capacity and ability to work is within the province of the ALJ, not of doctors").
It is also well-settled that Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a) ("In general, you have to prove to us that you are blind or disabled. This means that you must furnish medical and other evidence that we can use to reach conclusions about your medical impairment(s)."); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(c) ("Your responsibility. You must provide medical evidence showing that you have an impairment(s) and how severe it is during the time you say that you are disabled. You must provide evidence, without redaction, showing how your impairment(s) affects your functioning during the time you say that you are disabled, and any other information that we need to decide your claim."); Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d ...