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Smith v. Colvin

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

March 27, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         The claimant, Rebecca Smith, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI"). Ms. Smith 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. Smith was 47 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ") decision, and she has a seventh-grade education. (Tr. at 192, 197). Her past relevant work experience includes employment as a retail sales clerk, security guard, companion/sitter, and cook. (Tr. at 26). Ms. Smith claims that she became disabled on August 15, 2012, due to congestive heart failure, thyroid disorder, hypertension, fibromyalgia, and back pain. (Tr. at 196).

         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 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 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. 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, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do 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 (ARFC") 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 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 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 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. Smith had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 15). According to the ALJ, claimant's degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, thyroid disorder, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD"), status post-myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome with syncope, and anxiety disorder are considered “severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, the ALJ found that these impairments, considered singly and in combination, neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 17). The ALJ found that Ms. Smith's allegations were “not totally credible, " and he determined that Ms. Smith has the residual functional capacity to perform

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR ' 416.967(a) except occasional pushing or pulling with lower extremities; no climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolds; occasional climbing ramps and stairs, occasional balancing, kneeling, crouching, crawling, stooping; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, vibration, fumes, odors, chemicals, gases, dusts, poorly ventilated areas; no exposure to dangerous machinery, unprotected heights. During a regular scheduled workday, or the equivalent thereof, individual can; 1) Understand and remember short and simple instructions, but is unable to do so with detailed o[r] complex instructions. 2) Do simple, routine, repetitive tasks, but is unable to do so with detailed or complex tasks. 3) Have no more than occasional, casual contact with the general public. 4) Deal with changes in work place if introduced occasionally and gradually and are well-explained. 5) Not be required to read instructions or write reports. 6) Do no math calculations.

(Tr. at 17).

         According to the ALJ, Ms. Smith 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 26). He determined that transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because the Medical-Vocational Rules support a finding of “not disabled" regardless of transferability of job skills. (Id.) The ALJ found that Ms. Smith has the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary work. (Id.) Even though the claimant cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ used Medical-Vocational Rule 201.19 as a guideline for finding that there are a number of jobs in the economy that Ms. Smith is capable of performing, such as table worker, nut sorter, and cuff folder. (Tr. at 27). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that the claimant “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since August 15, 2012, the amended alleged onset date." (Tr. at 29).

         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 claimant 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.

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Smith alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for three reasons. First, she argues that the Appeals Council failed to consider new, relevant evidence, a report from Dr. Wilson, which she presented after the ALJ's determination. In addition, she argues that the ALJ improperly drew adverse inferences from her lack of medical treatment. She further asserts that the ALJ's decision is not based on substantial evidence when the report from Dr. Wilson is considered. Also pending in this case is the plaintiff's motion to remand the case, ...

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