United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
plaintiff, Regina Burns Wagner, appeals from the decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(ACommissioner@) denying her application for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits (ADIB@). Ms.
Wagner timely pursued and exhausted her administrative
remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for
review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Â§' 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
The parties have consented to the full dispositive
jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 626(c).
Wagner was 54 years old at the time of the Administrative Law
Judge's (“ALJ”) decision, and she has a
master's degree in education. (Tr. at 398). Her past work
experiences include teaching elementary school and being a
reading coach for other teachers. (Tr. at 63, 398). Ms.
Wagner claims that she became disabled on November 15, 2012,
due to depression, anxiety, and migraine headaches. (Tr. at
187). The medical evidence submitted to the ALJ indicates
that Ms. Wagner has migraines, obesity, degenerative disc
disease, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. at 17, and exhibits
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 claimant's 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. Part 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
(“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. '
fourth step in the analysis 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 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 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,
but 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
the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms.
Wagner 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 32). She first determined that
Ms. Wagner meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. (Tr. at 17).
She next found that the plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since November 15, 2012, the
alleged onset date. Id. According to the ALJ, the
plaintiff's migraines; obesity; broad-based disc
protrusion at ¶ 4-L5; thoracic radiculitis with disc
protrusion at ¶ 11-T12; restless leg syndrome; and
recurring major depressive disorder, moderate, with anxious
features, are considered “severe” based on the
requirements set forth in the regulations. Id. She
further determined that Ms. Wagner had nonsevere impairments
of a fracture of a foot bone; anemia; bilateral arm
impairments; vitamin D and B deficiencies; vertigo; and bowel
incontinence. However, she found 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 19). The ALJ determined that Ms. Wagner's
statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely
credible.” (Tr. at 24).
determined that the claimant has the following residual
functional capacity: to perform medium work except that she
can work in an environment with only a “moderate noise
intensity level” or quieter; she is able to work in
settings with illumination similar to that found in a typical
office but is unable to work in sustained direct sunlight;
she can work in an environment that does not involve
concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor
ventilation or vibration; cannot work at unprotected heights
or with hazardous machinery; must have access to a nearby
restroom and must have the option to take restroom breaks at
her own discretion; is able to understand, remember, and
carry out simple, repetitive, and routine tasks and is able
to maintain attention and concentration for two hours at a
time; is able to work in an environment that does not have
stringent production or speed requirements; and is off task
10 percent of the day. (Tr. at 22-23).
on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that
Ms. Wagner is unable to perform her past relevant work as a
teacher. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ considered the testimony of a
vocational expert (“VE”), and determined that,
considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that the plaintiff can
perform. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ concluded her findings by
stating that the plaintiff is not disabled under Section
1520(g) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 32).
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). Substantial evidence is
“more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as
a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Crawford v. Commissioner of Soc.
Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004), quoting
Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir.
1997). 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).
Wagner alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed
and remanded for two reasons: (1) the ALJ failed to properly
evaluate her complaints of migraines and depression under the
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals' pain standard, and (2)
the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinion of Ms.
Wagner's treating physician, Dr. Stacy Siegel, with
regard to her depression and anxiety. (Doc. 13).
discussion of the plaintiff's medical history is
necessary in order to put the ALJ's decision into
context. Ms. Wagner has complained that she has had migraine
headaches since she was a child. She went on to become a
teacher, and worked at an elementary school until she was age
52. As a child, she was treated with Tylenol for the
headaches. She sought treatment and began taking prescription
medications for her migraines about ten years before her
onset date in 2012. She also has been treated for depression
and anxiety since at least 2003 by a psychiatrist, Dr. Stacy
Siegel. Dr. Siegel noted that her recurring major depressive
disorder was mild in 2004, but moderate in 2005, and moderate
or severe later in 2005. Dr. Siegel's notes from 2012
frequently report Ms. Wagner's depression as moderate to
severe, and note that the depression is accompanied by
migraines, occasionally mentioning that Ms. Wagner missed up
to a week of work because of a migraine. (Tr. at 317). In
2013, when treated ...