United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
HARWELL G. DAVIS, III, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge based on the consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff, Venita Lorraine Smith, filed for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on April 25, 2010, alleging she became disabled on April 30, 2010. (Tr. 19, 115, 119). Her application was denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Following this hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 3, 2012, finding plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr.19-28). The Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-3). Consequently, the Commissioner's decision is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
I. ALJ Decision
Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). "Substantial work activity" is work that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526. If such criteria are met, the claimant is declared disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still find disability under the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ first must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). In the fourth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is determined to be capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In the last part of the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the ALJ to prove the existence in significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do given the RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 404.1560(c).
At Step One, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 30, 2010, the alleged onset date. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Smith had the following severe impairments: congestive heart failure, hypertension, depression and obesity. (Tr. 21). At Step Three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 22).
The ALJ then reported that, after consideration of the entire record, plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat or cold and all exposure to hazardous, moving machinery and unprotected heights. He further found that she can carry out, remember and understand simple, but not detailed or complex, instructions. (Tr. 24).
At Step Four, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a dietary aide, a care-giver, and a protective service monitor. According to the ALJ, the vocational expert (VE) testified that plaintiff's past relevant work as a dietary aide and as a care-giver are both classified as unskilled work at the light level of exertion, but that plaintiff reportedly performed them at the medium level of exertion. The VE also testified that plaintiff's past work as a protective service monitor is classified as semi-skilled work at the sedentary level of exertion. According to the VE, plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a dietary aide and a care-giver as it is generally performed, but not as she actually performed it. He further testified that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a protective service monitor both as it is generally performed and as she actually performed it. (Tr. 27). Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 28).
II. Plaintiff's Argument for Reversal
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of a physician's assistant, which plaintiff references as a treating source. (Doc. 12, Brief of Plaintiff, at 6). Plaintiff also states that the ALJ failed to adequately consider plaintiff's obesity and to develop the record concerning her mental limitations. ( Id. at 8-10).
III. Standard of Review
Judicial review is limited to whether the record reveals substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Brown, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) mandates that the Commissioner's findings are conclusive if supported by "substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, re-evaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. See id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of evidence; "[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings must be affirmed even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review of ...