United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
plaintiff Donnie Lynn Hughes brings this action pursuant to
Title II of Section § 205(g) of the Social Security Act.
Mr. Hughes seeks review of a decision by the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration denying his claims for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After careful review,
the Court remands this action to the
scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in
this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council
denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the
ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and
[his] ‘legal conclusions with close
scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013)
(quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th
Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in
the record to support the ALJ's factual findings.
“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.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may
not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence,
” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.
Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d
1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation
omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if
the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's
findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing
Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).
respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must
determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal
standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's
application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ
failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that
the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court
must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
December 28, 2012, Mr. Hughes filed a Title II application
for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits.
(Doc. 7-6, p. 2). Mr. Hughes alleges that he became disabled
on March 25, 2011. (Doc. 7-6, p. 2). The Social Security
Administration denied Mr. Hughes's claim on February 20,
2013. (Doc. 7-5, p. 4). Consequently, Mr. Hughes filed a
written request for a hearing. (Doc. 7-5, p. 16).
Social Security Administration granted Mr. Hughes's
request, and on April 28, 2014, Mr. Hughes appeared and
testified at a video hearing before an administrative law
judge. (See Doc. 7-3, pp. 78-115). Julia Russell, a
vocational expert, and Joel S. Roger, an attorney who
represented Mr. Hughes, also appeared at the hearing.
(See Doc. 7-3, p. 79). At the time of his hearing, Mr.
Hughes was 43 years old. (Doc. 7-3, p. 83).
Hughes testified that he attended school through the seventh
grade and left during his eighth grade year at the age of
sixteen. (Doc. 7-3, p. 90). Mr. Hughes stated that after he
failed the first grade his school wanted to place him in
special education, but his mother refused. (Doc. 7-3, p. 90).
Mr. Hughes tried to get his GED, but he did not pass the
test. (Doc. 7-3, p. 91). Mr. Hughes testified that he reads
on a third-grade level, he cannot spell, and he struggles
with writing. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 90-91, 107). Mr. Hughes has work
experience as a maintenance worker, water meter reader, and
maintenance mechanic. (Doc. 7-3, p. 108). Mr. Hughes
indicated that as a water meter reader, he dug with a shovel;
he had no other tasks. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 107-08).
27, 2014, the ALJ denied Mr. Hughes's request for
disability benefits. The ALJ found that Mr. Hughes did not
have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets
or medically equals the severity of an impairment listed in
20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (Doc. 7-3,
pp. 59, 65). The ALJ applied the Social Security
Administration's “five-step sequential evaluation
process for determining if an individual is disabled, ”
noting that the evaluation would not proceed to the next step
“[i]f it is determined that the claimant is or is not
disabled at a step of the evaluation process[.]” (Doc.
7-3, p. 63).
found that Mr. Hughes had not “engaged in substantial
gainful activity since March 25, 2011, the alleged onset
date[.]” (Doc. 7-3, p. 64). The ALJ also found that Mr.
Hughes has the following severe impairments:
“degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar
spine; depression; [and] anxiety.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 64).
The ALJ determined that “the[se] impairments are
‘severe' within the meaning of the Regulations
because they more than minimally limit the claimant's
ability to perform basic work activities.” (Doc. 7-3,
p. 64). Additionally, the ALJ observed that Mr. Hughes has
non-severe impairments including: snoring; sleep apnea;
waking up jerking and jumping; dyspnea (defined as difficult
or labored breathing), hypersomnia, unspecified; periodic
limb movement disorder; and chronic obstructive bronchitis
without exacerbation. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65). With respect to
these conditions, the ALJ stated:
[On] March 2011, the claimant complained of snoring,
nocturnal apnea, waking up jerking and jumping and dyspnea. A
pulmonary function test indicated mild obstructive and
restrictive lung deficits and mildly reduced diffusing
capacity. A chest x-ray was normal. The claimant's
physician diagnosed rule out [sic] obstructive sleep apnea,
hypersomnia, unspecified; snoring; periodic limb movement
disorder; chronic obstructive bronchitis without
exacerbation. [Mr. Hughes] was prescribed symbicort
The claimant followed up for his respiratory complaints in
January 2012. He noted no acute pulmonary complaints. He was
still smoking. A physical examination revealed normal
breathing. The claimant had diminished breath sounds but no
rales, no rhonchi, no wheezing and no edema. The
claimant's most recent chest x-ray revealed
hyperinflation, increased interstitial marking and multiple
head granulomas. The claimant was diagnosed with chronic
obstructive bronchitis without exacerbation and tobacco
There is no further evidence of any pulmonary issues or
complaints after January 2012. The claimant mentioned no
complaints at the hearing. He admitted, however, that he
continues to smoke against the recommendations of his
physicians (Hearing Testimomy).
Accordingly, as there is no evidence in the record that
indicates that these impairments would cause the claimant any
more than minimal functional limitations, the undersigned
finds them to be nonsevere.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 65).
next determined that Mr. Hughes's impairments do not meet
or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in
the regulations. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65). With respect to Mr.
Hughes's physical impairments, the ALJ found that the
criteria under listings 1.04A, 1.04B, and 1.04C were not
satisfied based on the medical evidence. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65).
With respect to Mr. Hughes's mental impairments, the ALJ
found that the severity of these impairments do not meet or
medically equal the criteria of listing 12.04B or 12.04C.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 65). Listing 12.04B requires evidence that the
mental impairment “result[s] in at least two of the
following: marked restriction of activities of daily living;
marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence
or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation.
(See Doc. 7-3, p. 65-66) (referencing listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1).
The ALJ noted that “[a] marked limitation means more
than moderate but less than extreme.” (Doc. 7-3, p.
66). The ALJ concluded that Mr. Hughes's mental
impairments were moderate but not marked. (Doc. 7-3, p. 66).
on the above factual findings, the ALJ concluded that Mr.
Hughes had the “residual functional capacity to perform
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and
§ 416.967(b) with some exceptions. (Doc. 7-3, p. 67).
The ALJ opined:
[Mr. Hughes] is able to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs but never ladders,
ropes or scaffolds; must avoid all exposure to hazardous
machinery and unprotected heights; must avoid concentrated
exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, fumes, dusts, gases
and poor ventilation; must work in an environment where tasks
are learned through demonstration as opposed to reading; . .
. the claimant may have casual contact with coworkers,
supervisors and the public; the claimant must work in an
environment where changes are infrequent but when necessary
are introduced gradually; must be permitted to alternate
between sitting and standing every 30 minutes to an hour