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Law v. Colvin

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

September 19, 2014

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


L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.

I. Introduction

The plaintiff, Tabitha Ann Law, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Law 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. Law was forty-four years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a GED. (Tr. at 157, 605.) Her past work experiences include employment as an office manager, collector, administrative assistant, office clerk, parker, and greenhouse worker. (Tr. at 189.) Ms. Law claims that she became disabled on February 23, 2007, due to chronic obstructive pulmonary heart disease ("COPD"), emphysema, chronic bronchitis, anxiety, and neck pain from coughing. (Tr. at 206.)

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 found that Ms. Law meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 25.) She further determined that Ms. Law has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's mild COPD; asthma; and mild cervical spine hypertrophy are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 25 (emphasis in original)). However, she found that these impairments, singly or in combination, neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 28.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Law's allegations to be totally credible, and the ALJ determined that she has the following RFC:

[T]o perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567. Specifically, the full range of light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds with frequent lifting or carrying of objects up to 10 pounds, standing or walking up to 6 hours in an 8 hour day, and sitting up to 6 hours in an 8-hour day; with, generally, occasional stooping, some pushing and pulling of arm and/or leg controls, and the gross use of hands to grasp, hold and/or turn objects. I further finds [sic] however, that the full range of light work that can be performed by the claimant is reduced by the following functional limitations: the claimant is limited to no more than frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling or climbing of ramps or stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, gasses and poor ventilation; and must avoid all exposure to dangerous machinery or unprotected heights.

(Tr. at 29 (emphasis in original)).

According to the ALJ, Ms. Law is able to perform her past relevant work as an office clerk and collector. (Tr. at 45.) She determined that Plaintiff has past relevant work that "does not require the performance of work-related activities [that are] precluded by [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity." ( Id. ) The ALJ used the testimony of an impartial vocational expert ("VE") to reach this finding. The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 23, 2007, the amended onset date of disability and through the date of this decision." (Tr. at 46, Finding no. 7.)

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. Law alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for three reasons, one related to the Appeals Council's denial of review and the other two related to the ALJ's decision. First, she believes that the Appeals Council ("AC") failed to consider the entire record, including the new evidence of Plaintiff's anxiety, and therefore the denial of benefits was not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 7 at Page 13.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding that her situational anxiety was not a "severe" impairment at step two of the sequential evaluation process was erroneous. ( Id. at 14.) Third, Plaintiff asserts ...

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