United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
DEBRA L. SHIPMAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Debra L. Shipman, 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. Shipman 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. Shipman was forty-one years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 24, 80.) Her past work experiences include employment as a mail sorter for the United States Postal Service. ( Id. at 25, 91.) Ms. Shipman claims that she became disabled on December 17, 2000, due to back pain and depression. ( Id. at 85-86.)
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. Shipman was insured through December 31, 2006. (Tr. at 22, 35.) He further determined that Ms. Shipman has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability through her date of last insured, December 31, 2006. ( Id. at 35.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, history of depression/anxiety, and obesity are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. at 36.) However, he 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. ) The ALJ did not find Ms. Shipman's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the RFC to perform light work which allows the ability to sit or stand at her option; occasional bending, stooping, or climbing; and no upper or lower pushing/pulling of her extremities. ( Id. )
According to the ALJ, Ms. Shipman is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is a "younger individual, " and she has "at least a high school education" as those terms are defined by the regulations. ( Id. ) He determined that the "transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is not disabled.'" ( Id. ) Even though Plaintiff could not perform the full range of light work, the ALJ used Medical-Vocation Rule 202.21 as a framework for deciding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as a shipping and receiving clerk. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff "was not under a disability, ' as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from December 17, 2000, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2006, the date last insured." ( 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, 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).
Ms. Shipman alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for several reasons. First, she claims that the Commissioner violated her procedural due process rights by not notifying her of her date of last insured ("DLI") for DIB purposes. (Doc. 6 at 5.) Second, Plaintiff contends generally that the ALJ's RFC assessment is not based on substantial evidence, and sets forth various sub-claims, such as that the ALJ erred in giving little weight to her treating physician's opinion, the ALJ erred in not obtaining a consultative examination, and the ALJ did not comply with Social Security Ruling 96-8p. ( Id. ) Third, she claims that the ALJ failed to apply Social Security Ruling 83-20 because he did not obtain testimony from a medical expert.
A. Plaintiff was not deprived of her procedural due process rights in connection with her DLI
Plaintiff states generally that the Commissioner's treatment of her claim "lacks due process from start to finish, " (doc. 6 at 5), but the only argument she makes with any specificity is that the Commissioner violated her due process rights by not notifying her of her DLI for DIB purposes. "The fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner." Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333 (1976) (internal quotations marks omitted). Moreover, "there must be a showing of prejudice before it is found that the claimant's right to due process has been violated to ...