United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Robert Earl Graham, appeals from the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Mr. Graham timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
Mr. Graham was forty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision. Although he repeated the tenth grade, Mr. Graham completed the eleventh grade and was not enrolled in any special education classes. (Tr. at 169, 411.) In the fifteen years before the alleged onset of his disability, Mr. Graham was employed as an ice packer in a fish processing plant. (Tr. at 83, 170-71.) Mr. Graham claims that he became disabled on May 27, 2007, due to leg pain associated with poor circulation and seizures. (Tr. at 64-65, 68-69.)
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.
The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as "severe" and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that "substantial medical evidence in the record" adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).
Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") before proceeding to the fourth step. See id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.
The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id .; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Mr. Graham was insured through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 35.) She further determined that Mr. Graham had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of his disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Mr. Graham's alcohol dependence, history of alcohol withdrawal seizures, discrete peripheral neuropathy (probably alcohol related), discrete cerebellar ataxia (alcohol related), anxiety and depression secondary to alcohol dependence, and history of varicose veins are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 35-36.) However, she found that Mr. Graham did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 36.) The ALJ did not find Mr. Graham's allegations to be totally credible, and she determined that Mr. Graham has the RFC to perform light work with a sit/stand option but must refrain from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; kneeling and crawling, although he can perform occasional crouching; and must avoid exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery. (Tr. at 39-40.)
According to the ALJ, Mr. Graham is unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. at 54.) He is a "younger individual" with a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 55.) The ALJ determined that transferability of skills was "not an issue" because Mr. Graham's past relevant work is unskilled. ( Id. ) Although the ALJ found that Mr. Graham did not have the RFC to perform the full range of light work, she nonetheless determined from testimony of a vocational expert that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he is capable of performing, such as production assembly worker, auto packer, and garment sorter. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Mr. Graham was not disabled. (Tr. at 56.)
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 Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F.Appx. 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).
Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). "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 proof preponderates against ...