United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Bridgett Dawn Payne, 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. Payne 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. Payne was thirty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 52.) She does not have any past relevant work experience. (Tr. at 53.) Ms. Payne claims that she became disabled on August 19, 2009, for a number of medical reasons, including knee injury, arthritis, back problems, bursitis, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. (Tr. at 52, 150.)
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.
The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as "severe" and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that "substantial medical evidence in the record" adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).
Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") before proceeding to the fourth step. See id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.
The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id .; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Payne met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2011. (Tr. at 30.) He further determined that Ms. Payne has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. ( Id. ) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's old remote compression fracture with minimal degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine; scoliosis of the lumbar spine; occasional bursitis flare and degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder; degenerative joint disease of the right knee; degenerative joint disease of the hip; dysthymic disorder; and panic disorder with agoraphobia are considered "severe" 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 31.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Payne's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the following residual functional capacity: light work, except she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, humidity and vibrations; she cannot work from unprotected heights; she can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or climb stairs and ramps; and she cannot climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds. (Tr. at 33.) He determined that mentally Ms. Payne can understand, remember and carry out instructions sufficient to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks; she can maintain concentration, persistence and pace for periods up to 2 hours with routine breaks. ( Id. ) He restricted Ms. Payne to a low stress work environment, defined as occasional changes in the work setting; and concluded that Ms. Payne should work with things rather than people, and should preferably be provided a well-spaced work environment with only occasional supervision. ( Id. )
According to the ALJ, Ms. Payne has no past relevant work, she is a "younger individual, " and she has at least a high school education, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 40-41.) He determined that transferability of job skills was not an issue because Ms. Payne does not have any past relevant work. (Tr. at 41.) The ALJ found that Ms. Payne has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of light work. ( Id. ) Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ used Medical-Vocation Rule 202.20 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 housekeeper, production assembler, and mail clerk. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Ms. Payne "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 19, 2009, through the date of this decision." (Tr. at 42.)
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 Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F.Appx. 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).
Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). "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 proof preponderates against ...