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Swindler v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama

March 31, 2017

MICHAEL SWINDLER, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Michael Swindler appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted his 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. 18). For the reasons that follow, this matter is due to be remanded, and the motion to remand is due to be denied as moot.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Swindler was forty-nine years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (R. 18, 30). He alleged eligibility for benefits beginning on July 27, 2011, following previous applications and his longstanding history of mental health and medical problems. (R. 18).

         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 SGA, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, 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 George Merchant found Mr. Swindler had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of his disability. (R. 23). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; status post fracture of the proximal right humerus; degenerative joint disease of the right hip with mild rotatory scoliosis; moderate degenerative joint disease of the right foot with hallux deformity; osteoarthritis of the right shoulder; mood disorder; schizoaffective disorder; and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Id.).

         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. (Id.). Specifically, the ALJ stated he considered Listings 1.02, 1.04, 12.03, 12.04., and 12.06. (R. 24). The ALJ made no indication he considered Listing 12.05. (See id.). The ALJ found Mr. Swindler's mental impairments did not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listings 12.03, 12.04, or 12.06. (R. 24). In order to meet or medically equal the listed impairments, a mental impairment must result in at least two of the following “paragraph B” criteria: (1) marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (2) marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or (3) repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (R. 24); see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00 (2012). After a review of the evidence in the record, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not meet the criteria of paragraph B.

         The ALJ also considered whether Mr. Swindler met the criteria of “paragraph C” with respect to Listings 12.03, 12.04, and 12.06. (R. 24-25). Paragraph C is to be used when there is a medically documented history of “a chronic organic mental disorder, schizophrenia, or some other paranoid or psychotic disorder, or an affective disorder.” (Id.); see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00 (2012). The ALJ found Plaintiff's mental impairments had “not caused any of the limitations set forth” in paragraph C and Plaintiff “had not experienced any episodes of decompensation.” (R. 25). Based on these findings, the ALJ found Mr. Swindler did not satisfy the criteria of paragraph C, and thus, Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments set forth in the applicable regulations. (Id.).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(a) with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and as such, should avoid all exposure to the operation or control of hazardous or moving machinery and to unprotected heights. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can bilaterally handle and finger for gross and fine manipulation no more than frequently. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out no more than simple instructions and can perform simple, one to two step tasks. The claimant requires a low stress setting, which is defined as occasional decision making and infrequent changes in the workplace. Contact with the public and coworkers should be no more than occasional.

(R. 25).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (R. 29-30). 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 Mr. Swindler can perform. (R. 30-31). In reaching his conclusions, the ALJ considered the medical opinions of several physicians. (R. 29). The ALJ concluded by finding Mr. Swindler was not disabled. (R. 31).

         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 ...


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