United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Emma Sue Pate, 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. Pate 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).
Ms. Pate was nineteen years old at the time of the alleged onset of disability, she has a limited education, and is able to communicate in English. (Tr. at 30). Her past work experiences include employment as a fast food worker (light and unskilled) and a cashier/checker (light and semi-skilled). Id. Ms. Pate claims that she became disabled on June 1, 2008, due to a gunshot wound to the leg, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder, and slow learning. (Tr. at 30, 130).
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 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. 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, he or she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If he or she does 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 or 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 is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform; and, 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 Ms. Pate meets the insured status requirements for a period of disability and DIB through September 30, 2010. (Tr. at 19). He further determined that Ms. Pate has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 21, 2010. Id. According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's gunshot wound to the right buttock, obesity, borderline intellectual functioning, depression and anxiety are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 20). He also found that Ms. Pate has the following non-severe impairments: hypertension, history of pelvic inflammatory disease, history of rectal abscess and hemorrhoids, peripheral edema, history of ovarian cyst, constipation, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, scoliosis, pinched nerve in the back and irritable bowel syndrome. Id. However, he 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. Id. The ALJ determined that she "has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except that she cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She is limited to the performance of simple, routine, repetitive tasks in an environment where changes are infrequent and are gradually introduced. The claimant should not interact with the general public. She can work in close proximity to co-workers, but would do best working on tasks alone." (Tr. at 21-22).
According to the ALJ, Ms. Pate is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is a "younger individual, " and she has a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 30). He determined that "[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled, " whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills." Id. Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of medium work, the ALJ used the testimony of the vocational expert as a guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as hand packager, kitchen helper, and day worker, all of which are classified as medium, unskilled work. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that the Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 1, 2008, through the date of this decision." Id.
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 plaintiff 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.
Ms. Pate alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because, she asserts, the record establishes her disability under listing 12.05(C) of the "Listing of Impairments." The plaintiff argues that the ALJ misapplied listing 12.05(C), and that further proceedings are necessary to properly evaluate whether she meets the ...