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Contreras-Zambrano v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

March 31, 2017

SILVIA CONTRERAS-ZAMBRANO, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRAITON, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

The plaintiff, Silvia Contreras-Zambrano, 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"). Plaintiff 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). Also pending is Plaintiff's motion to remand. (Doc. 17). For the Reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed, and the motion to remand is due to be denied.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was fifty-three years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, is unable to communicate in English, and has an eighth grade education. (R. 25). Her past work experience include employment as a poultry eviscerator, poultry inspector, and poultry weigher. (R. 54-55). The jobs of poultry inspector and poultry weigher are classified as being semi-skilled. (R. 55). Plaintiff claims she became disabled on January 30, 2012, due to severe degenerative disc disease, asthma, and obesity. (R. 14).

         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; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to consider the combined effects of all the claimant's physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet durational requirements before a claimant will be found 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, at which the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments meet 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 impairments fall within this category, the claimant will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If the impairments do not fall within the listings, the Commissioner determines the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent the claimant from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience to determine whether he or she can perform other work. Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, he or she is not disabled. Id.

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, ALJ Jerome L. Munford found Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (R. 17). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disk disease, asthma, and obesity. (R. 17).

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments. (R. 20). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following limitations: (1) she could only occasionally stoop and crouch; (2) she would be precluded from driving, climbing, and pushing or pulling with her legs; and (3) she would need a temperature and climate controlled environment. (R. 21).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. 25). Because the Plaintiff's RFC did not allow for the full range of light work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") as evidence for finding a significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 25-26). The ALJ concluded by finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 26).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A 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 Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F.App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). A court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, a court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). "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 a court finds that the proof preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         However, no decision is automatic, for "despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] 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) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for five reasons: (1) the ALJ failed to apply grid rules; (2) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to Plaintiff's treating physicians; (3) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not credible was not based on substantial evidence; (4) the decision is tainted by the ALJ's bias; and (5) the ALJ's decision is not based on substantial evidence. (Doc. 10 at 2). Each contention is addressed in turn. Also addressed below is Plaintiff's motion to remand, which is fully briefed and is ripe for adjudication. (Docs. 17, 21-22).

         A. ALJ's ...


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