United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
SONJA F. BIVINS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Ashley Thomas (hereinafter "Plaintiff"), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. On June 19, 2015, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 33). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
I. Procedural History
Plaintiff previously applied for and commenced receiving supplemental security income benefits as a child in 2001 based on mild mental retardation with features of attention deficit disorder ("ADD") and benign essential treatment of the hand. (Supp. Tr. 337). After Plaintiff obtained age 18, a review was conducted, and her benefits were terminated on July 31, 2009. (Tr. 45). Plaintiff requested a hearing, and in a decision dated October 22, 2010, an Administrative Law Judge determined that Plaintiff is not disabled, and issued an unfavorable decision. (Id.). Plaintiff filed the instant action on October 4, 2011 seeking a review of the unfavorable decision. Subsequent thereto, on December 19, 2011, the Commissioner sought an unopposed sentence six remand on the ground that the claim file, decision and the recording of the administrative hearing could not be located. (Doc. 12). The request was granted, and this action was remanded to the Agency on January 12, 2012. (Doc. 15).
While Plaintiff's original claim was pending before the Agency, she filed a second claim on November 29, 2010. (Tr. 144). In her second application, Plaintiff alleged that she has been disabled since June 1, 2008, due to "ADHD, slow learner, arthritis, tremors, hypertension, major depression, and problem sleeping." (Id. at 144, 148). After Plaintiff's application was denied, her claims were consolidated, and she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Frank M. Klinger (hereinafter "ALJ") on June 4, 2012. (Id. at 64, 68, 92, 309, 312). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id. at 316). A vocational expert ("VE") also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 326). On February 20, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 41). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 11, 2013. (Id. at 5). Thus, the ALJ's decision dated February 20, 2013, became the final decision of the Commissioner.
On August 6, 2014, the Commissioner filed a motion to reopen Plaintiff's case, which this Court granted on August 8, 2014. (Doc. 17, 20). Oral argument was conducted on June 19, 2015 (Doc. 34), and the parties agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
II. Issues on Appeal
A. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff meets Listing 12.05C?
B. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment for a range of light work?
C. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to give substantial weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician?
D. Whether the ALJ failed to conduct a full and fair hearing?
III. Factual Background
Plaintiff was born on October 30, 1989, and was twenty-two years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on June 4, 2012. (Tr. 144, 309). Plaintiff received special education services while in high school, passed the Alabama High School Graduation exam on the fourth attempt, and graduated from high school. (Id. at 318, 323). Plaintiff testified that she cannot read or write at all, except for her name, and can only do a "little" simple math. (Id. at 316-19). However, in Plaintiff's Disability Report, she reported that she can read and write. (Id. at 147). Additionally, her school records reflect that she made "B's" in English and "C's" in Algebra in the 9th grade, "C's" in English and Geometry in the 10th grade, "B's" in U.S. History, Earth and Space Science, and Creative Writing in the 11th grade, and a "B" in accounting in the 12th grade. (Id. at 222; Supp. Tr. 420-21, 428). Moreover, Plaintiff had a 3.0 GPA in the 11th grade, and upon graduation from high school, her class rank was 31 out of 51. (Tr. 222, 428).
Plaintiff testified that she lives with her mother and seven siblings with whom she does not get along, that she lays around and watches TV all day, and that she has never worked because she gets "nerv[ous]" and "shakes a lot." (Id. at 209, 317-20). She also reported pain in her shoulder and back, which makes it difficult for her to bend or stand for more than an hour or so. (Id. at 325-26). According to Plaintiff, she is depressed and cries approximately three times a day, and she does not go out alone. (Id. at 320, 322).
She also indicated that she does not have any problems with personal care and that she is able to prepare simple meals, such as sandwiches, wash dishes and take out the trash, and do some yard work. (Id. at 155, 164-65). Additionally, while Plaintiff indicated that has no friends or hobbies and does not like being around people, she also testified that she goes to church every Sunday, sings in the choir, and participates in church activities and trips. (Id. at 157-8, 166-7, 319, 321-24).
A. Standard of Review
In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance" and consists of "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion."). 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); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).
An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as 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 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
In the case sub judice, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 29, 2010, the application date, and that she has the severe impairments of social anxiety disorder, mood disorder, history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), very probable borderline intellectual functioning ("BIF), hypertension, history of fungal dermatitis and tremor, diagnosis of arthritis left shoulder and low back pain etiology unclear, and obesity. (Tr. 27). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.).
The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (hereinafter "RFC") to perform a range of light work, except that "she could understand and remember simple instructions but not detailed ones. She could carry out simple instructions and sustain attention to routine/familiar tasks for extended periods. She could tolerate ordinary work pressures but should avoid quick decision-making, rapid changes, and multiple demands. She would benefit from regular rest breaks and a slower pace but will still be able to maintain a work pace consistent with the mental demands of competitive level work. Contact with the public should be casual. Feedback should be supportive. She could adapt to infrequent, well-explained changes." (Id. at 29). The ALJ also determined that while Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the alleged symptoms were not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the RFC assessment. (Id. at 31).
Utilizing the testimony of a VE, the ALJ concluded that considering Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for a range of light work, as well as her age, education and work experience, there are jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform, such as "cafeteria attendant, " "garment sorter, " and "shirt presser, " all of which are classified as light and unskilled. (Id. at 40). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id.).
In determining that Plaintiff did not meet any Listing, the ALJ made the following relevant findings:
Under the third step, a determination must be made as to whether or not the impairment or impairments are of listing severity. The Medical Listings (20 C.F.R. Part 404, Appendix: I, Subpart P) outline the findings, which must be present under each of the body systems for an impairment to be found disabling. No treating or examining source or medical expert has concluded that the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The claimant's impairments, singularly and in combination, have been compared to all listed impairments, including but not limited to listings 1.01, et seq., 4.01 et seq., 8.01 et seq., and 12.01. I find that the severity of the claimant's impairments does not meet the specific requirements of any of the impairments listed by the Commissioner in Appendix 1. I also find that the severity of the claimant's impairments, even in combination, does not equal the level of severity contemplated in the listings.
The severity of the claimant's mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06. In making this finding, I have considered whether the "paragraph B" criteria are satisfied. To satisfy the "paragraph B" criteria, the mental impairments must result in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. A marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration, means three episodes within 1 year, or an average of once every 4 months, each lasting for at least 2 weeks.
In activities of daily living, the claimant has moderate restriction. Dr. Estock agreed and found the claimant to have moderate restriction in activities of daily living as well (Exhibit B1F). The claimant reported that she does not have problems with her personal care. She reports that she shops. She also reports that she goes to church every Sunday and sings in the choir. There is nothing in the record to support a more than moderate restriction.
In social functioning, the claimant has moderate difficulties. Dr. Estock agreed and found the claimant to have moderate restriction in activities of daily living as well (Exhibit B1F). Although the claimant reports that she does not spend time with others, she does live with her family. Additionally, she shops and goes to church every Sunday and sings ...