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Lewis v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

September 17, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.

I. Introduction

The plaintiff, Diane M. Lewis, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Lewis 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).

Ms. Lewis was 58 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a college education. (Tr. at 32.) Her past work experience is as a financial analyst. (Tr. at 183.) Ms. Lewis claims that her bipolar disorder, which she has had since at least 1975, intensified and caused her to be disabled once she was hospitalized with manic symptoms on February 6, 2008. (Tr. at 210, 135.)

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). 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). 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).

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). 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). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Ms. Lewis meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 22.) He further determined Ms. Lewis has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's combination of bipolar and anxiety disorders are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) However, he found 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 26.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Lewis's allegations to be totally credible, and determined she has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform less than the full range of medium work as defined by 20 C.F.R. Part 404.1567(c). (Tr. at 28.) The ALJ found she can lift 30 pounds occasionally and 20 pounds frequently, she can sit for 2 hours of an 8 hour workday, and she can stand or work for 6 hours of an 8 hour workday. The ALJ further found she can push, pull, stoop, climb ramps and stairs, and operate foot controls for 4 hours of an 8 hour workday; she can frequently balance and occasionally kneel and crawl, but must avoid any exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or exposure to unprotected heights, or even moderate exposure to excessive noise. Furthermore, the ALJ found Ms. Lewis can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks with normal breaks, no fast-paced production requirements, simple work-related decisions, few, if any, and gradual changes in work setting, occasional judgment, and minimal interaction with the public. Finally, the ALJ found Ms. Lewis can be around co-workers throughout the day with occasional interaction with such coworkers. ( Id. )

According to the ALJ, Ms. Lewis is unable to perform her past relevant work, she is an "individual of advanced age, " and she has "at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English" as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 32.) The ALJ determined that transferability of job skills is not material to the issue in this case, because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that Ms. Lewis was "not disabled" whether or not she has transferable job skills. ( Id. ) Based on the finding that Ms. Lewis has the RFC to perform less than the full range of medium work, the ALJ used Medical-Vocational Rule 201.25 as a guideline for finding there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy she is capable of performing, such as hand packager, assembler, and childcare worker. (Tr. at 32-33.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating Ms. Lewis had "not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 8, 2008, through the date of th[e] decision." (Tr. at 33.)

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).

III. Discussion

Ms. Lewis alleges the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. First, she believes the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinion evidence of the physicians in the case. (Doc. 9 at 12.) Second, Ms. Lewis argues the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility when determining whether she was disabled. ( Id. at 19.)

Before addressing Plaintiff's claims, an overview of Plaintiff's medical history and her reported daily activities is warranted. Plaintiff has had bipolar disorder since she was 25 years old and has experienced several manic episodes. (Tr. at 48.) Despite her disorder, Plaintiff had a long career at Boeing, earning up to $90, 000 per year as a financial analyst. (Tr. at 52.) In February 2008, Plaintiff had a manic episode due to stress at work. (Tr. at 50.) The episode occurred while she was cleaning out a storage unit with her husband which she says made her frustrated. ( Id. ) She was hospitalized for five days-from February 10, 2008 to February 15, 2008-because she was in a manic state, and presented symptoms including lack of sleep, disorganization, racing thoughts, and hypertalkativeness. (Tr. at 324.) After a brief period back at home, Plaintiff was readmitted to the hospital on February 23, 2008 and discharged March 3, 2008. ( Id. ) Since those hospitalizations, Plaintiff has not been back to the hospital, and she has consistently been stable on medication in the three years since her hospitalizations. (Tr. at 50.) Plaintiff testified that she routinely prepares lengthy meals, shops for "several hours" multiple times a week, reads novels for "several hours" in one sitting, walks one to two miles multiple times per week, cleans, cares for two dogs, and has no problems getting along with others. (Tr. at 50-60.) Plaintiff and her husband also discussed other activities that they do such as boating, camping, going out to eat, going to concerts, traveling, and gardening. (Tr. at 29, 175-80, 213-28.) Plaintiff testified that she feels she cannot work ...

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