United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Leticia Medina brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ["DIB"]. Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the court is of the opinion that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Ms. Medina filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on June 23, 2010, alleging disability beginning on March 24, 2010. (Doc. 6-3 at R.24.) Her application was denied initially. ( Id. ) Thereafter, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ["ALJ"], which was held on March 15, 2012. ( Id. ) After the hearing, the ALJ found that Ms. Medina was "capable of performing her past relevant work as a data entry clerk and as a translator." ( Id. at R.38.) In light of these findings, the ALJ found that Ms. Medina was not disabled. ( Id. at R.39.)
Ms. Medina then requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. ( Id. at R.19.) The Appeals Council "found no reason under [its] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision. Therefore, [it] denied [Ms. Medina's] request for review." ( Id. at R.1.) The ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. )
Following denial of review by the Appeals Council, Ms. Medina filed an appeal in this court. ( See generally doc. 1.)
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court's role is a narrow one: "Our review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], rather [it] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir.1983))(internal quotations and citations omitted). "The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence." Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1221 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990); Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987)). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011)(internal quotations and citations omitted)
Conclusions of law made by the Commissioner are reviewed de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. "No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law." Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).
A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION
The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability and DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2); see also Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986). "The term disability' means - (A) [the] inability to 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...." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1). The specific steps in the evaluation process are as follows:
1. Substantial Gainful Employment
First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 137 (1987). The regulations define "substantial gainful activity" as "work activity that is both substantial and gainful." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the claimant is working and that work is substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). "Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity." Reynolds-Buckley v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).
The ALJ found that Ms. Medina had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 24, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-3 at R.26.)
2. Severe Impairments
If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c). "[A] physical or mental impairment' is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). The regulations provide: "[I]f you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). "An impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience." Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments even though none of the individual impairments alone are disabling. Walker v. Brown, 826 F.2d 996, 1001 (11th Cir. 1985); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. A claimant has the burden to show that she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863.
The ALJ found that Ms. Medina had the following severe impairments: "obesity and thyroid cancer status post-total thyroidectomy." (Doc. 6-3 at R.27.) He also found that Ms. Medina's "mental impairment of depression does not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities and is therefore non-severe." ( Id. )
3. The Listings
If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must then determine whether the claimant's impairment meets the durational requirement and whether it is equivalent to any one of the listed impairments, which are impairments that are so severe as to prevent an individual with the described impairment from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 [The Listings]. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals a Listing, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The claimant has the burden of proving that her impairment meets or equals the criteria contained in one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863.
The ALJ found that Ms. Medina "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the impairments included in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §[§] 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526)." (Doc. 6-3 at R.28.)
4. Residual Functional Capacity and Past Relevant Work
If the impairment does not meet or equal the criteria of a Listing, the claimant must prove that her impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f). At step four, the Commissioner "will first compare [her] assessment of [the claimant's] residual functional capacity ["RFC"] with the physical and mental demands of [her] past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b). "Past relevant work is work that [the claimant has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [her] to learn to do it. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will find she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(e). The claimant bears the burden of establishing that the impairment prevents her from performing past work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863.
The ALJ found that Ms. Medina had the following RFC:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following deviations or adjustments. The claimant can lift and/or carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently with her upper right extremity. She can sit for up to six hours at a time during an eight-hour workday, and can stand and/or walk in combination for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant cannot use her left upper, non-dominant extremity for any significant lifting and/or carrying on a regular basis, but she can use her left upper extremity for assistive purposes such as balancing. The claimant has decreased cervical range of motion such that there is very little horizontal or vertical movement in her cervical spine.
(Doc. 6-3 at R.29.) Considering Ms. Medina's RFC, the ALJ found that she could perform her past relevant work as a data entry clerk ...