United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
KARON OWEN BOWDRE, Chief District Judge.
On June 24, 2010, the claimant protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. She initially alleged onset of her disability beginning January 17th, 2010, a date that was later amended to January 1, 2011. All claims were initially denied on October 4, 2010. The claimant then filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on October 11, 2010, and the ALJ held a hearing in Florence, Alabama on March 20, 2012.
In a decision dated May 4, 2012, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and, thus, was ineligible for disability benefits. (R. 21). The Appeals Council then denied the claimant's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 1). The claimant exhausted her administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, this court will REVERSE and REMAND the decision of the Commissioner.
II. ISSUE PRESENTED
The claimant presents the following issue for review: whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's omission of Dr. Blackmon's limitation that the claimant would need to miss one to two days per month because of her anxiety from the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if his factual conclusions are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).
"No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the Commissioner's factual determinations de novo, but will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).
The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors "are not medical opinions, ... but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the Plaintiff meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court "may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence exists in the record to support it.
The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual findings." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but the court must also view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).
IV. LEGAL STANDARD
Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person cannot "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 which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process:
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of "not disabled."
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Social Security Ruling 96-8p provides guidance regarding residual functional capacity assessments:
The RFC assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions in paragraphs (b), (c), and (d) of 20 C.F.R. §404.1545 and §416.945. Only after that may RFC be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.
SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ must first assesses the claimant's functional limitations and restrictions and then expresses her functional limitations in terms of exertional levels. See Castel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 355 F.Appx. 260, 263 (11th Cir.2009); Freeman v. Barnhart, 220 F.Appx. 957, 959-60 (11th Cir.2007); see also Bailey v. Astrue, 5:11-CV-3583-LSC, 2013 WL 531075 (N.D. Ala. Feb. 11, 2013).
The ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence in assessing the claimant's functional limitations, including
medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, the effects of treatment, including limitations or restrictions imposed by the mechanics of treatment (e.g., frequency of treatment, duration, disruption to routine, side effects of medication), reports of daily activities, lay evidence, recorded observations, medical source statements, effects of symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributed to a medically determinable impairment, evidence from attempts to work, need for a structured living environment, and work evaluations, if available.
SSR 96-8p at *4-*5. However, the ALJ is not required to "specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision, " so long as the decision is sufficient to show that the ALJ considered the claimant's medical condition as a whole. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir.2005); see also Castel, 355 F.Appx. at 263.
An ALJ's RFC determination is not a medical assessment, but is "based on all the relevant evidence in [the claimant's] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ makes this determination by considering the claimant's physical, mental, and other abilities affected by the impairment(s). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(b)-(d), [20 C.F.R. § 416.945(b)-(d)].
The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that she cannot return to her past relevant work. Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567, 1571 (11th Cir. 1990). If the claimant is unable to do past relevant work, the examiner determines whether, in light of the claimants's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience, the claimant can perform other work. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir. 2002).
The ALJ may determine whether the claimant has the ability to perform other work in the national economy by use of a vocational expert. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1239 (11th Cir. 2004). The ALJ must articulate specific jobs that the claimant is able to perform, and substantial evidence must support this finding. Id. For a vocational expert's testimony to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question that ...