United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
WILLIAM M. ACKER, Jr., District Judge.
April Lane brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. Lane timely pursued and exhausted the administrative remedies available to her before the Social Security Administration. Based on the court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and the action remanded to the Commissioner for an award of benefits.
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for social security benefits, a non-elderly claimant must, inter alia, show that she is disabled. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(D), 1381a (2012). A person is disabled if she is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2012). To determine if a claimant is disabled, the Social Security Administration employs a five-step process, which is followed at each level of administrative review. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). A conclusive finding may be made at each step; if not, the Commissioner's review continues to the next step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in any substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Second, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has "a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment" expected to result in death or to last at least one year. If not, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, the Commissioner must determine if any of the claimant's impairments meets or exceeds the requirements of an impairment within the Listing of Impairments, found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If so, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
If the Commissioner has not made a conclusive determination after the third step, she must assess the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The RFC measures the claimant's ability to work in spite of her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1).
Fourth, the Commissioner must determine if the claimant's RFC allows her to perform her past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Fifth, the Commissioner must determine whether there exist a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant's RFC allows her to perform. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.920 (a)(4)(v), 416.960(c). If a significant number of such jobs exist, the claimant is not disabled; if not, she is disabled. Id.
Lane applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on August 11, 2009. (R. at 128-36). She alleges that she became disabled on July 20, 2009. (R. at 145). Lane testified that she is unable to work primarily due to pain in her right shoulder (resulting from a herniated disc), pain in her hips (resulting from fibromyalgia), and migraine headaches. (R. at 40, 52). According to Lane, the pain in her shoulder and hips often makes performing daily tasks such as cleaning the house and preparing meals impossible, and her frequent migraines, including three to four per month that are uncontrollable, often force her to lie down in a dark room. (R. at 32, 40). Lane testified that her pain, on a zero to ten scale, is a six or seven daily, and she cannot carry on her daily activities seven to ten days in any given month because of the pain. (R. at 41-42).
After the hearing, the ALJ found that Lane is not disabled. (R. at 11). She began with conceding that Lane has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date, and that she suffers from the following severe impairments: cervical radiculopathy, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, anxiety, and depression, though none of the impairments meet or exceed a listing. (R. at 12-13). The ALJ next determined Lane's Residual Functional Capacity, which she listed as follows:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), lifting and carrying up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently. She would require an option to sit and stand during the workday, for 1-2 minutes every hour or so and could stand and walk an hour at a time. She can occasionally push and pull with her upper extremity and can occasionally reach overhead. She should avoid concentrated exposure to cold temperatures, dampness, and vibration. She would be limited to occupations, which do not require climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolding. She would not be able to tolerate a lot of stress and may miss one day a month due to her physical or mental problems.
(R. at 13-14). To the extent Lane's testimony contradicted this finding, the ALJ found the testimony not credible. (R. at 14).
Based on the RFC finding, the ALJ found that Lane is capable of performing past relevant work "as a customer service representative, a hotel desk clerk, and a hotel night auditor." (R. at 17). The ALJ consequently found Lane not to be disabled. (R. at 18).
A. Standard of Review
"[R]eview of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). Review of the Commissioner's factual findings is highly deferential; "[i]f the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence [the court] must affirm, even if proof preponderates against it." Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996)). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.3d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). "A substantial evidence' standard, however, does not permit a court to uphold the [Commissioner's] decision by referring only to those parts of the record which support the ALJ. A reviewing court must view the entire record and take account of evidence in the record which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ." Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).
"In contrast to the deferential review accorded to the [Commissioner's] findings of fact, the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law, including applicable review standards, are not presumed valid." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). Such conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). "The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with ...