United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
NATASHA L. RUTLEDGE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Natasha L. Rutledge, 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. Rutledge 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 jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). (Doc. 9).
Ms. Rutledge was 32 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 36, 148). Her past work experiences include employment as a cashier, custodian, and hospital cleaner. (Tr. at 52-53). Ms. Rutledge claims that she became disabled on November 1, 2010, due to degenerative disc disease with bulging and herniated discs, and arthritis. (Tr. at 148).
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 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. pt. 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 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 her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).
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 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 that Ms. Rutledge has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 19). She determined that Ms. Rutledge has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine, cervicalgia and obesity are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 21). She further determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 23). The ALJ did not find Ms. Rutledge's allegations of debilitating pain to be entirely credible (Tr. at 24), and she determined that the plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity: to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she may only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can engage in frequent reaching in all directions, including overhead; can engage in frequent fingering; must work in an environment that does not have stringent production or speed requirements and thus may not perform fast-paced assembly line work. (Tr. at 23).
According to the ALJ, Ms.Rutledge is able to perform her past relevant work as a cashier as it is actually and generally performed. (Tr. at 26). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff is "not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act." (Tr. at 27).
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. 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. Rutledge alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because, she asserts, the ALJ failed to properly base her residual functional capacity findings upon substantial evidence and, in reaching her conclusion, the ALJ misapplied the pain standard set forth by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (Doc. 10). More specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's residual functional capacity findings are improper because they are not based on a medical source opinion ("MSO") and because the ALJ failed to employ a consultative examiner ("CE") or a medical expert ("ME"). (Doc. 8, pp. 9-13). Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ improperly failed to apply the Eleventh Circuit's three-part pain standard in addressing the effect of pain on Plaintiff's ability to function. (Doc. 8, pp. 6-9).
A. Residual Functioning Capacity
The ALJ determined that Ms. Rutledge could perform a limited range of light work. (Tr. at 25-26). The Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ gave "no weight" to the opinion of the State Agency medical consultant, Dr. Chastain. (Tr. at 295-302). The Plaintiff further argues that the opinion was thus based on "no physical medical opinion, " and that Ms. Rutledge's case is due to be remanded ...