United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The claimant, Wendell Thompson, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Mr. Thompson timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Mr. Thompson was forty-four years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision, and he has a ninth grade education. (Tr. at 16, 28, 214). His past relevant work experience includes employment as a short-order cook. (Tr. at 28). Mr. Thompson claims that he became disabled on August 1, 2008, due to hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma. (Tr. at 213).
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 is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he 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 on 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, he will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity ("RFC") is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him 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 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 is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform; but, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his or her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Thompson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability. (Tr. at 21). He further determined that, although Mr. Thompson began working at Ryan's Restaurant Group, Inc., in August of 2011, after the alleged onset period, his 2011 employment was an unsuccessful work attempt. According to the ALJ, claimant's COPD, asthma, hypertension, depressive disorder, alcohol dependence, history of cocaine abuse (in early remission), borderline intellectual functioning, and learning disorder (reading and mathematics) are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) However, the ALJ 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 22). The ALJ did not find Mr. Thompson's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that Mr. Thompson has the residual functional capacity to perform "sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(a), except he can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant can occasionally tolerate exposure to pulmonary irritants, temperature extremes and humidity. He requires the opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing, as needed. Additionally, the claimant can understand, remember and carry-out simple, repetitive, one-to-two step verbal directions; make judgments on simple work-related decisions; and adapt to gradual, infrequent workplace changes. He can have occasional, casual contact with the general public and infrequent contact with supervisors and coworkers." (Tr. at 24-25).
According to the ALJ, Mr. Thompson is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he is a "younger individual, " and he has a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 28). He determined that transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because the Medical-Vocational Rules support a finding of "not disabled" regardless of transferability of job skills. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Mr. Thompson has the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary work. ( Id. ) Even though the claimant cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ used Medical-Vocational Rule 201.25 as a guideline, as well as the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") for finding that there are a number of jobs in the economy that Mr. Thompson is capable of performing, such as cuff folder, buckle wire assembler, and lens inserter. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that the claimant "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since April 22, 2010, the date the application was filed." (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 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. "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. Federal 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 "despite 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).
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(e), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant 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 there is substantial evidence in the record supporting it.
Mr. Thompson alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. First, Mr. Thompson argues that the Appeals Council failed to consider the new evidence he presented to it after the ALJ's determination. Alternatively, Mr. Thompson argues that the Appeals Council erred in failing to remand Mr. Thompson's case for further consideration in light of new and material evidence.
After the ALJ's denial of Mr. Thompson's SSI petition, the claimant presented evidence that was new and material to his claim. This evidence consists of a "Tracking Card" from Mr. Thompson's high school ("the new evidence"). (Tr. at 259-260). The new evidence indicates that during his seventh grade year, Mr. Thompson was placed in Educable Mentally Retarded ("EMR") classes, and remained in those courses until he left Decatur High School in ninth grade. ( Id. ) Mr. Thompson's EMR placement appears to be based on a WISC-R test taken in 1979 by which he was determined to have an IQ of 70. ( Id. ) The claimant argues in his brief to the Appeals Council that the new evidence should be evaluated to "resolv[e] the differential diagnoses of BIF [borderline intellectual functioning] or Mild mental retardation as surmised by the consultative psychologist and to the ultimate Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)." (Tr. at 257). The claimant further argues ...