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Grier v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division

July 31, 2015

TERESA GRIER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Teresa Grier, Plaintiff: Melissa Boles Horner, LEAD ATTORNEY, R D PITTS & ZANATY LLC, Birmingham, AL.

For Social Security Administration, Commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Defendant: Don B Long, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorney's Office - NDAL, Birmingham, AL.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Teresa A. Grier (" Ms. Grier" ) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security

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Administration, which denied her application for Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) benefits.[1] Ms. Grier timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Ms. Grier was 45 years old at the time of her hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ). (Tr. 161). Ms. Grier testified that she had a ninth (9th) grade special education. (Tr. 32). Her past relevant work experience includes employment as a painter. (Tr. 21). Ms. Grier stated she stopped working on December 31, 2002, and claims she became disabled on that date.[2] (Tr. 140, 166).

On May 24, 2011, Ms. Grier protectively filed a Title XVI application for SSI.[3] (Tr. 55). On October 5, 2011, the Commissioner initially denied this claim. (Tr. 74). Ms. Grier timely filed a written request for a hearing on October 24, 2011. (Tr. 80). On February 1, 2012, a fully favorable decision of Ms. Grier's application was reached by an attorney advisor.[4] (Tr. 56). On March 29, 2012, the Appeals Council sent notice to Ms. Grier of its intention to review the decision reached by the attorney advisor based on its own motion pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.1469. (Tr. 96). On October 17, 2012, the Appeals Council informed Ms. Grier that the previously favorable decision had been vacated and her case had been remanded to an ALJ for further proceedings. (Tr. 67). The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on July 7, 2013. (Tr. 30). On October 21, 2013, the ALJ issued his opinion concluding Ms. Grier was not disabled and denied benefits. (Tr. 22). On May 20, 2014, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on her claim. (Tr. 1).

Ms. Grier filed a complaint with this court on July 22, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered on November 13, 2014. (Doc. 8). Ms. Grier filed a supporting brief (Doc. 12) on January 26, 2015, and the Commissioner responded with its own (Doc. 13) on February 27, 2015. With the parties having fully briefed the matter, the court has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, reverses and remands the decision of the ALJ.[5]

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STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This court must " scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds " such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Substantial evidence is " more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court. The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed de novo, because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. [6] The Regulations define " disabled" as " the inability to do 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 twelve (12) months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a " physical or mental impairment" that " must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

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Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The sequential analysis goes as follows:

Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.

Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 24, 2011, the application date. (20 C.F.R. § 416.971 et seq ). (Tr. 12).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity, fibromyalgia, diabetes (non-insulin dependent Type II), nicotine dependent with episodes of bronchitis, mild degenerative disk disease of the spine, sleep apnea, and depression. The claimant's rectal polyp was successfully removed without any complications and is, therefore, considered by the undersigned to be a non-severe impairment. (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c)). (Tr. 12).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (20 C.F.R. § § 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). (Tr. 13).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). The claimant can occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds. Claimant can stand and/or walk, with normal breaks, for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and sit, with normal breaks, for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. Pushing and/or pulling of foot controls with the left lower extremity is limited to occasionally, with the total restriction of climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and also crawling. Balancing, stooping, kneeling, and crouching would be occasional. She should avoid concentrated exposure to cold, heat, humidity, vibration, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation. The claimant should not work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving unguarded machinery. The claimant is limited to performing unskilled work with no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public. Otherwise, she would appear to be able to perform such work for periods up to 2 consecutive hours without a standard work break. (Tr. 14).

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5. The claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work. (20 C.F.R. § 416.965). (Tr. 21).
6. The claimant was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed. (20 C.F.R. § 416.963). (Tr. 21).
7. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English. (20 C.F.R. § 416.964). (Tr. 21).
8. Transferability 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. ( See SSR 82-41, and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2). (Tr. 21).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform. (20 C.F.R. § § 416.969 and 416.969(a)). (Tr. 21).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since May 24, 2011, the date the application was filed. (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)). (Tr. 22).

ANALYSIS

The court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). " This does not relieve the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding." Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)).[7] However, the court " abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Id. (citation omitted). Ms. Grier asserts that " the ALJ improperly discounted Grier's testimony of disabling limitations and failed to fully and fairly develop the record." (Doc. 12 at 11).

The court has carefully reviewed the record and finds that this case should be remanded for further development. Under the instant circumstances, substantial evidence does not exist in the record to support the ALJ's conclusion that Ms. Grier is not disabled and can perform reduced light work because: (1) the ALJ's negative credibility finding was not based on substantial evidence; and (2) independent of the ALJ's erroneous negative credibility finding, the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence. While the court has endeavored to separate the issues into their respective subparts, it recognizes the overlap and interrelated nature of these findings.

I. The ALJ's Credibility Finding Is Not Based On Substantial Evidence.

Ms. Grier argues that " the ALJ did not properly assess [Ms. Grier]'s credibility consistent with the Regulations." (Doc. 12 at 4). The court agrees. More specifically, the ALJ's decision that Ms. Grier does not meet the pain standard is based on an inadequate negative ...


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