United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Alison Michele Sanders, 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. Sanders 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). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c).
Ms. Sanders was 41 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 40). Her past work experiences include employment as a secretary, pharmacy technician, dispute specialist with a credit union, accounts payable clerk, and a manager of a movie rental store. (Tr. at 75-79). Ms. Sanders claims that she became disabled on October 5, 2009, due to bipolar disorder, low back pain, migraines, kidney problems, and a stroke that impaired her memory. (Tr. at 190).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he or she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If she does not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment based on all relevant evidence of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Sanders has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 42). He determined that Ms. Sanders has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 24). According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's history of kidney stones, history of occipital neuralgia, migraines, degenerative disc disease,  bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) He further determined 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 30-33). The ALJ further determined that Ms. Sanders has the "non-severe" impairments of hypertension and an old lacunar infarct. The ALJ did not find Ms. Sanders' allegations to be totally credible (Tr. at 35), and he determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work with only occasional bending and stooping, no climbing, no work at unrestricted heights, and only simple repetitive, non-complex tasks. (Tr. at 33).
According to the ALJ, Ms. Sanders is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she was a "younger individual" at the date of alleged onset, she has a high school education, and she is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 40). He determined that "[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability" in this case. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Ms. Sanders has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of light work, and that, even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as blood donor unit assistant, information clerk, and fund raiser II. (Tr. at 41). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff is "not disabled" under the Social Security Act. (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 Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The Court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. AThe 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 evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for Adespite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Ms. Sanders alleges as the only basis for reversal of the ALJ's decision that the ALJ's mental RFC was not based on substantial evidence. (Doc. 13). Specifically, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the consultative psychologist's opinion. (Doc. 13, pp. 6-10). The plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ had a duty to more fully develop the record by calling for additional review by a medical expert. (Doc. 13, p. 10). Finally, the plaintiff urges that the ALJ's determination is inconsistent with his own assessment of the plaintiff's impairments. (Doc. 13, p. 11). Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's assessment of her physical RFC.
A. Consultative Examiner's Assessment
The plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of the consultative psychologist, Dr. Heath Patterson. Dr. Patterson evaluated Ms. Sanders on January 26, 2011. Dr. Patterson noted that Ms. Sanders had an "extensive history of full-time employment in a number of arenas, " and that her employment as an office worker for a security company ended in 2008 "when psychiatric decompensation interfered with her ability to complete routine work duties." (Tr. at 756). Dr. Patterson further noted that Ms. Sanders had a history of depression, and had received mental health treatment since she was in her 20s. (Tr. at 756-57). He stated that she reported that she had taken psychoactive medications for many years and found them "helpful." ( Id. ) Dr. Patterson found Ms. Sanders to be "fully oriented to all spheres" with "intact" attention and concentration, but with "marked slowing." He further found her abstract reasoning skills to be "within expected limits, " and her judgment to be "fair." (Tr. at 757). Her fund of information was within "expected parameters;" her long-term memory "fair" and her short term memory better; her thought process was "logical, coherent, and goal-directed." (Tr. at 758). He next reported that Ms. Sanders reported experiencing "hallucinations/perceptual distortions, " including "unknown voices making derogatory comments about her and instructing her to harm herself, " but that she did not act on those thoughts. (Tr. at 758). Dr. Patterson summarized Ms. Sanders' condition as having "adequate ...