United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Antoinette Maria Byner brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for supplemental security income ["SSI"]. Upon review of the record, the submissions of the parties, and the relevant law, the court is of the opinion that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed in part. Because the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security fails to evaluate plaintiff's obesity in the assessment of plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the decision will be remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff initially filed an application for SSI on August 16, 2008, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2008. (R. 18.) This application was denied on October 21, 2008 by the Social Security Administration ["SSA"], and plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ["ALJ"], which was held on February 11, 2010. (R. 18.) The ALJ rejected plaintiff's application on April 28, 2010. (R. 18, 90.) Plaintiff then filed another application for SSI on October 20, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2006, which plaintiff later amended to October 20, 2010. (R. 18, 36, 94.) The SSA denied plaintiff's application on January 26, 2011. (R. 18, 107.) Subsequently, plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on June 12, 2012. (R. 33, 121.) After the hearing, the ALJ found that, while plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, she was capable of making a vocational adjustment to other occupations, such as retail associate, ticket seller, counter sales clerk, and cashier, which are jobs that exist in significant numbers in Alabama and in the national economy. (R. 25-26.) In light of these findings, the ALJ denied plaintiff's request for SSI on July 3, 2012. (R. 26.)
On August 7, 2012, plaintiff, with the assistance of new counsel, petitioned the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, (R. 12), and thereafter, submitted arguments for review, (R. 268-72). On October 10, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (R. 1.) Following denial of review by the Appeals Council, plaintiff filed an appeal in this court on December 9, 2013. (Doc. 1.)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court "is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]; rather the court must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)) (internal quotations and other citation omitted). "The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence." Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1221 (citing Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529; Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987)). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
Conclusions of law made by the Commissioner are reviewed de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. "[N]o... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law." Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).
A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION
The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for SSI. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2); Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986). For the purposes of this evaluation, the meaning of disability is the "inability 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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The specific steps in the evaluation process are as follows:
1. Substantial Gainful Employment
First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 137 (1987). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b); § 416.920(b). "Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity." Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 F.App'x 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).
The ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 20, 2010, the alleged onset date. (R. 20.)
2. Severe Impairments
If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c). "[A] physical or mental impairment' is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3); § 1382c(a)(3)(D). The regulations provide: "[I]f you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); § 416.920(c).
An impairment is "severe" if it "significantly limits [a] claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). When an impairment "is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience, " it will be classified as non-severe. Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856 (1985). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments even though none of the individual impairments alone are disabling. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1001 (11th Cir. 1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; § 416.923. A claimant has the burden to show that she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 F.App'x at 863.
The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, status-post cervical spine surgery; asthma; chest pain, probable costochondritis; and bilateral heel spurs." (R. 20.) The ALJ found that plaintiff's additional limitations of hypertension, obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome, and depression were non-severe because those "conditions constitute[d] at most only a slight ...