United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Brenda Clemment, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Clemment 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 full dispositive jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c).
Ms. Clemment was 52 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 28). Her past work experiences include employment as a hostess/waitress and as a truck driver. (Tr. at 36). Ms. Clemment claims that she became disabled on April 21, 2010, due to an on-the-job back injury, degenerative disc disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, depression, migraines, and arthritis. (Tr. at 135).
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 Adoing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's 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. Part 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 they do 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 his or 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 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 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 in this case that Ms. Clemment has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 20). He first determined that Ms. Clemment meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. (Tr. at 15). He next found that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 21, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 15). At the second step of the evaluation process, the ALJ found that the plaintiff's degenerative disc disease in the cervical and thoracic spine and arthritis in the right shoulder are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id. ) He explicitly found that her osteoporosis, hypertension, and anxiety and depression were not severe and had only a minimally limiting effect on her ability to work.
Proceeding to the third step of the process, the ALJ found that the plaintiff's severe impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 16). The ALJ determined that Ms. Clemment's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not fully credible, and he determined that she has the following residual functional capacity ("RFC"): to perform medium work except that she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; she can occasionally crouch and crawl; and she can only perform occasional overhead reaching with the right upper extremity. (Tr. at 16-17).
Moving on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Clemment is able to perform her past relevant work as a hostess/waitress. (Tr. at 19). The ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), and employed 20 CFR § 404.965 as a guideline for finding that Ms. Clemment is capable of meeting the "physical and mental demands" of her past relevant work as a hostess/waitress. (Tr. at 19). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff is not disabled under section 1520(f) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 19).
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). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004), quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997). 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. 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 "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).
Ms. Clemment alleges seven errors on which the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded: (1) the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standard for determining whether the plaintiff can perform her past work; (2) the ALJ substituted his own opinion for that of her treating physicians; (3) the ALJ failed to acknowledge and consider all of the plaintiff's impairments; (4) the ALJ's decision regarding credibility is not supported by substantial evidence; and (5) the ALJ failed to apply the Grid Rules where the plaintiff should have been found to meet Rule 201.12. In addition, Ms. Clemment asserts that (6) the Appeals Council failed to apply the correct standard, ...