United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Cheryl Vanita Hobson, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Ms. Hobson 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. Hobson was forty-one years old at the time of the hearing, she has a ninth-grade education, and she is able to communicate in English. (Tr. at 31, 44). She has no past relevant work experience. ( Id. ) Ms. Hobson claims that she became disabled on June 1, 2009, due to COPD, seizures, glaucoma, depression, back pain, and slow blood flow to the brain. (Tr. at 155).
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 will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity ("RFC") is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent 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 is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his or her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying this sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hobson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 15, 2009, the application date. (Tr. at 24). According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's impairments include mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; seizure disorder; affective disorder with anxiety; bipolar disorder; COPD secondary to chronic tobacco abuse; and narcotic dependence, which were considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) He also determined that the Plaintiff has impairments that are non-severe, which are: a previous hysterectomy following evidence of early stage uterine cancer, GERD, migraine headaches, tremor, glaucoma, and obesity. ( Id. ) However, he found that the impairments, either individually or in combination, do not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 25).
The ALJ did not find Ms. Hobson's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the residual functional capacity to perform "sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a), except she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold and pulmonary irritants; no driving commercial vehicles; occasional stooping; no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; understand, remember and carry-out instructions sufficient to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks; can maintain concentration, persistence and pace for periods up to two hours sufficient to complete a regular workday with routine breaks; low stress environment, defined as infrequent, gradually introduced changes in the work setting; infrequent interaction with public; can be around employees throughout the workday, but only occasional, casual conversation and interpersonal interaction; only occasional, tactful, non-confrontational supervision; and deal with things rather than people. (Tr. at 27-28).
According to the ALJ, Ms. Hobson has no prior relevant work, she is a "younger individual, " and she has a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 31). He determined that "[t]ransferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work." ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Ms. Hobson has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of sedentary work. (Tr. at 32). Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied upon the testimony of an impartial vocational expert ("VE") for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as inspector of small parts, bonder in the semi-conductor industry, and document preparer. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since July 15, 2009, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)." ( 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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (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. Federal Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620, 86 S.Ct. 1018, 16 L.Ed.2d 131 (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).
The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a 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 decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as there is substantial evidence in the record supporting it.
Ms. Hobson alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. First, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination of her RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to include as a limitation upon her ability to do sedentary work that she be limited to working in a "well-spaced environment." Second, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination that she has the ability to perform unskilled sedentary work is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not take into account that the Plaintiff's impairments will result in more than one absence per month from her job, which according to the VE, would make her unemployable.
A. Well-Spaced Work Environment
At the oral hearing, the ALJ discussed, in his hypothetical questions to the Vocational Expert (VE), Ms. Hobson's possible need for a well-spaced work environment for light work.
Q Then I will ask you to consider the following. Let's assume a younger individual with limited education but literate. Let us further assume that this individual could perform work at the light exertional level but should avoid the following, .... This [hypothetical] person should deal with things rather than people; could be around employees throughout the day, but only occasional, casual conversations and interpersonal interaction, and would benefit from a well-spaced work environment with only occasional tactful and non-confrontational supervision. Given that particular hypothetical for both the exertional, the environmental, the postural limitations and the mental aspects, would there be other work existing in the national economy such an individual could perform?
A Judge, when you say could benefit from a well-spaced work environment, are you saying that she should have a well-spaced work environment?
Q Well-spaced work environment would be proper, yes, sir.
A Judge, unskilled, light or sedentary work is not going to offer a well-spaced work environment that I'm familiar with in Alabama.
Q Now if we were to take a look, then, at just sedentary work without the issue of a well-spaced work environment... would there be other work?
A There would be, Judge. Examples would include working as an inspector of small parts.... Such a person could function as a bonder in the semiconductor industry.... Such a person could function as a document preparer in the [INAUDIBLE] industry, ...