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Cooley v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 11, 2015

HAZEL JEANETTE COOLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.

I. Introduction

The plaintiff, Hazel Jeanette Cooley, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Cooley 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. Cooley was sixty years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (Tr. at 17, 49-50.) She has a high school education, and has completed additional coursework in advanced keyboarding and medical terminology transcription. (Tr. at 139-40.) Her past work experiences include employment as an access representative at a hospital, a decorator for a construction company, a secretary, and a pharmaceutical warehouse worker. (Tr. at 140, 159-63). Ms. Cooley claims that she became disabled on June 1, 2009, due to chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and nerve problems. (Tr. 138-40, 146-48.)

The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 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). 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). If the plaintiff is not 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). 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 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. See id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent her from performing her 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). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find her not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find her disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g).

Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Cooley was insured through the date of his decision and that Ms. Cooley has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 22.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's degenerative cervical disc disease, polyarthralgia, and myalgia 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. (Tr. at 24.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Cooley's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that her residual functional capacity allows her to perform light work, with the following limitations:

She can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit 6 hours and stand/walk a combination of 6 hours during an 8-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and cannot lift above shoulder level with the left upper extremity. She is unable to perform around work hazards and must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibrations, and pulmonary irritants.

(Tr. at 24-27.)

According to the ALJ, Ms. Cooley is able to perform her past relevant work as an office manager and hospital admission clerk. (Tr. at 28.) This work is semi-skilled in nature and performed at the sedentary level of physical exertion. (Id. ) Further, even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ used the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, to find that there are also a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that Ms. Cooley is capable of performing, such as general cashier and telephone quote clerk. (Tr. at 28-29.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 1, 2009, through the date of this decision." (Tr. at 29.)

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 ...


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