United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
TAMMY K. BLAKE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Tammy K. Blake, 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. Blake 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. Blake was thirty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school education, as well as training to be a licensed practical nurse. (Tr. at 41.) Her past work experience is employment as a licensed practical nurse. ( Id. at 182.) Ms. Blake claims that she became disabled on April 1, 2009, due to hearing restrictions, back pain, arthritis, and endometriosis. ( Id. at 161-62.)
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, 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 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 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 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. Blake meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through March 31, 2010. (Tr. at 33.) He further determined that Ms. Blake has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Ms. Blake's history of endometriosis with heavy menstrual cycle and obesity are considered "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. ( Id. at 35.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Blake's allegations regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the RFC to perform light work; she should avoid concentrated exposure to extremes of cold, heat, or loud noises; she should not work with hazardous machinery or from unprotected heights; she can do occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of stairs, but cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. ( Id. at 35, 38.)
According to the ALJ, Ms. Blake is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is a "younger individual" as that term is defined by the regulations, she has a high school education, and is able to communicate in English. ( Id. at 41.) He determined that Plaintiff has "some skills that fall within the parameters of work at lower levels of exertion, " but that "[t]ransferability 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, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills." ( Id. ) The ALJ found that though Ms. Blake has the RFC to perform light work, her "ability to perform all or substantially all of the requirements of this level of work has been impeded by additional limitations." ( Id. at 42.) Accordingly, the ALJ procured the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") to assist in his determination of whether jobs exist in the national economy for an individual with Ms. Blake's age, education, work experience, and RFC. ( Id. at 42.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Blake "is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, " such as health care support worker, which is light and unskilled; medical office helper, which is light and semi-skilled; file clerk, which is light and semi-skilled; and medical receptionist, which is light and semi-skilled. ( Id. at 43.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating Ms. Blake "has not been under a disability" through the date of his decision. ( 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. Blake alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. She claims that the ALJ failed to give adequate weight to her treating physician's opinion. (Doc. 9 at Page 3.) Also, she claims that the ALJ limited her to only unskilled jobs but then posed an incorrect hypothetical to the VE that did not limit her to only unskilled jobs. ( Id. )
A. Treating Physician's Diagnoses
Ms. Blake contends that the ALJ did not give adequate weight to the opinion of her treating osteopathic physician, Dr. Kitturah Klaiss. (Doc. 9 at Page 13.) A treating physician's testimony is entitled to "substantial or considerable weight unless good cause' is shown to the contrary." Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)) (internal quotations omitted). The weight to be afforded a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments depends, among other things, upon the examining and treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to support the opinion, how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, and the specialty of the medical source. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Furthermore, "good cause" exists for an ALJ to not give a treating physician's opinion substantial weight when the: "(1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) the treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own ...