United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Traci Ingram, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Ingram 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. Ingram was forty-four years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a twelfth grade education. (Tr. at 58, 46-47.) Her past work experience includes employment as a manager at a fast food restaurant. (Tr. at 19, 59.) Ms. Ingram claims that she became disabled on November 1, 2008, due to pain and limitations from peripheral neuropathy and lymphedema caused by her radical hysterectomy and treatment she received for cervical cancer. (Tr. at 67, Doc. 11 at 6.)
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. Ingram meets the insured status for disability benefits through March 31, 2009, her date last insured. (Tr. at 17.) He further determined that Ms. Ingram has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's impairment of "status post left foot fracture" is considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that this impairment neither meets nor medically equals any of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. ( Id. ) The ALJ did not find Ms. Ingram's pain allegations to be totally credible, and determined that she has the following RFC: "to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) except claimant graduated high school, can sit for six hours out of an eight hour day, can stand up to two hours in an eight hour day and can basically perform sedentary work. Further, claimant also requires a sit-stand option." (Tr. at 18.)
Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Ms. Ingram is unable to perform her past relevant work as a fast food manager, she is an "individual of younger age, " and she has "at least a high school education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 19.) He determined that transferability of skills was not an issue in this case because "using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is not disabled, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills." ( Id. ) Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the Vocational Expert ("VE") in finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the plaintiff is capable of performing, such as surveillance system monitor, eye glass frames polisher, and toy stuffer. (Tr. at 19-20.) The ALJ thus concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from her alleged onset date of disability through the date last insured. (Tr. at 20.)
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).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of her testimony of disabling symptoms in accordance with the Eleventh Circuit's "pain standard." (Doc. 11 at 5.) Specifically, Ms. Ingram alleges that the ALJ failed to give credit to the Plaintiff's testimony of disabling pain and limitations resulting from peripheral neuropathy and lymphedema. (Doc. 11 at 6.)
Disability benefits may not be paid solely on the basis of a claimant's own self-serving complaints. See 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(5)(A). However, subjective testimony of pain and other symptoms may establish the presence of a disabling impairment if it is supported by medical evidence. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir.1995). To establish disability based upon pain and other subjective symptoms, the Eleventh Circuit has set forth a two-part standard: "The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir.2005) ( citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir.1991)).
Once the plaintiff has met the pain standard, the ALJ then considers the plaintiff's subjective testimony of his symptoms. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 (2013). The ALJ may discredit Plaintiff's subjective testimony, but he must provide sufficient reasons for this decision. Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225; see also Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 (1996) ("[T]he adjudicator must carefully consider the individual's statements about symptoms with the rest of the relevant evidence in the case record in reaching a conclusion about the credibility of the individual's statements."). There is no precise formula that the ALJ must follow when explaining why he has discredited a plaintiff's testimony, however "the implication must be obvious to the reviewing court." Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1255 (11th Cir. 1983). In determining credibility, the ALJ may consider evidence such as a plaintiff's medical history, medical treatment plan, and reported daily activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3) (2013).
Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments, which included her status post cervical cancer, could reasonably be expected to cause the symptoms she was alleging, including peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. at 18-19.) However, as noted, meeting the pain standard does not automatically end the ALJ's analysis if the ALJ rejects the plaintiff's complaints for lack of credibility. See Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560-61 (meeting the judicial pain standard is only a threshold inquiry and the ALJ may reject the complaints by offering specific reasons); Marbury v. Sullivan, 957 F.2d 837, 839 (11th Cir.1992) ("After considering a claimant's complaints of pain [under the above standard], the ALJ may reject them as not credible, and that determination will be reviewed for substantial evidence.") (citing Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 517 (11th Cir.1984)). The ALJ correctly continued the analysis of whether Plaintiff's complaints of ...