United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KATHERINE P. NELSON, Magistrate Judge.
Social Security Claimant/Plaintiff Nancy Robinson ("Robinson") has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c. ( See Doc. 1). By the consent of the parties ( see Doc. 22), the Court has designated the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. ( See Doc. 23).
The parties have waived oral argument ( see Docs. 21, 24), and this action is ripe for adjudication. Upon consideration of the parties' briefs (Docs. 17, 18, 19) and the relevant portions of the administrative record (Doc. 14) (hereinafter cited as "(R. [page number(s)])"), the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be AFFIRMED.
I. Procedural Background
On March 30, 2007, Robinson protectively filed with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") an application SSI, alleging disability beginning March 30, 2007. After her application was initially denied on July 13, 2007, Robinson requested a hearing on her application. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 25, 2010. Subsequent to that hearing, additional evidence was submitted, and a supplemental hearing was held on July 1, 2010, in Montgomery, Alabama. ( See R. 51).
On September 10, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Robinson's application. (R. 48-65). Robinson requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council for the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. On January 14, 2014, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Robinson's request for review. (R. 1-5).
Robinson timely filed this action under § 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision on February 25, 2014. ( See Doc. 1); Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007) ("The settled law of this Circuit is that a court may review, under sentence four of section 405(g), a denial of review by the Appeals Council."); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow.").
II. Standard of Review
The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step, sequential evaluation process used to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.
Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004)). This five-step evaluation process "is used to determine disability for both SSI and DIB [Disability Insurance Benefit claims." Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030-31 (11th Cir.1986); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912 (2005) (five-step determination for SSI); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2005) (five-step determination for DIB)).
"These regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work." Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Spencer v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090, 1093 (11th Cir. 1985)). "In determining whether the claimant has satisfied this initial burden, the examiner must consider four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) the diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history." Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (citing Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). "These factors must be considered both singly and in combination. Presence or absence of a single factor is not, in itself, conclusive." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted).
If, in Steps One through Four of the five-step evaluation, a plaintiff proves that he or she has a qualifying disability and cannot do his or her past relevant work, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden, at Step Five, to prove that the plaintiff is capable-given his or her age, education, and work history-of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). Finally, but importantly, although "the [plaintiff] bears the burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair record." Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).
"In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 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, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). "In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision." Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, the Court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].'" Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240 n.8 (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239)). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [a court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence." Davison v. Astrue, 370 F.Appx. 995, 996 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (unpublished) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158-59) (emphasis added). "Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [The court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]" Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted).
Moreover, "[t]here is no presumption... that the Commissioner followed the appropriate legal standards in deciding a claim for benefits or that the legal conclusions reached were valid. Instead, [the court] conduct[s] an exacting examination' of these factors." Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)) (internal citation omitted). See also Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211 ("In Social Security appeals, we review de novo the legal principles upon which the Commissioner's decision is based. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, we review the resulting decision only to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004)).
When, as here, "no new evidence is presented to the Appeals Council and it denies review, then the administrative law judge's decision is necessarily reviewed as the final decision of the Commissioner..." Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1262.
III. Claims on Appeal
Claim 1 - "The ALJ abused his discretion when he substituted his own uninformed medical evaluation for the opinions of Dr. Huey Kidd and Dr. Donald Blanton, and the ALJ failed to conduct a full and fair hearing."
Claim 2 - "The ALJ relied on evidence that was inconsistent with the regulatory definition of unskilled work."
Claim 3 - "The ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by substantial evidence, as it did not account for Ms. Robinson's diabetes."
(Doc. 18 at 2).
A. Claim 1
At Step Four,
the ALJ must assess: (1) the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (2) the claimant's ability to return to her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). As for the claimant's RFC, the regulations define RFC as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). Moreover, the ALJ will "assess and make a finding about [the claimant's] residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence" in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Furthermore, the RFC determination is used both to determine whether the claimant: (1) can return to her past relevant work under the fourth step; and (2) can adjust to other work under the fifth step... 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
If the claimant can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (f). If the claimant cannot return to her ...