United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
DEBORAH L. LOUALLEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
Plaintiff, Deborah L. LouAllen, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. LouAllen 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. LouAllen was thirty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision and she has a ninth grade education. (Tr. at 52.) Her past work experiences include employment as housekeeper in hotels, as a janitor, and as kitchen help in a restaurant. (Tr. at 169-72.) Ms. LouAllen initially claimed that she became disabled on June 30, 2005, which was later amended to March 31, 2010. (Tr. at 30, 119.) Plaintiff alleges disability based on fibromyalgia, depression, restless legs, thyroid problems, scoliosis, ear problems, back problems, tremors, and knee problems. (Tr. at 51, 180.)
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 she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id . If 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 first found that Ms. LouAllen met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2010. (Tr. at 32.) He further determined that Ms. LouAllen has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the initial alleged onset date of June 30, 2005. Id. According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease/scoliosis, fibromyalgia, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and obesity constitute "severe" impairments based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. Id. 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. (Tr. at 33.) The ALJ found Ms. LouAllen's allegations concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her impairments not credible to the extent they conflicted with the medical evidence, but did find that the medically determinable impairments could be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms. (Tr. at 36.) He determined that she has the following RFC: light work with a sit-stand option, but "limited to occasional climbing, stooping, crouching, knelling [sic], and crawling;" and to "simple, unskilled work with simple job instructions, " a "low-stress environment" with rare "changes in work settings, " and only occasional public and co-worker interaction, where incidental to the work performed. (Tr. at 35.)
According to the ALJ, Ms. LouAllen is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is a "younger individual, " and she has a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 39-40.) He determined that "transferability of skills is not an issue in this case." (Tr. at 40.) Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light or sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") as a guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as wire inserter, scheduler, shell fish preparer, dial marker, dowel inspector, and lens inserter. Id. The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff "was not under a disability, ' as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 30, 2005, through the date of this decision." (Tr. at 41.)
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. LouAllen alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for several reasons. First, she contends that the ALJ improperly assigned more weight to the opinion of Dr. Dobbs, the state agency non-examining psychologist, than to Dr. Smith, the consultative examiner. She also argues that the ALJ did not articulate what weight he gave to her testimony regarding subjective pain allegations.
A. Weight Given to the Opinions of the State Agency Non-Examining Psychologist and the Consultative Examiner
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred with respect to his evaluation of the opinion of the consultative examiner, Dr. Smith, for two reasons: 1) the ALJ failed to clearly state the weight he accorded to the opinion of Dr. Smith, and 2) the ALJ did not specifically address Dr. Smith's conclusion that "Ms. LouAllen's ability to maintain gainful employment is severely impaired at this time." (Doc. 6 at 4.) Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ erred by assigning the greatest ...