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Hayes v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

September 28, 2017




         The plaintiff, Christy Diane Hayes, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Social Security Income. (Doc. 1). Ms. Hayes 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). The parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 15). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is due to be remanded.


         Ms. Hayes initially applied for benefits on August 25, 2009. (R. 70). After her application was denied, Ms. Hayes requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on May 12, 2011. (R. 20). The ALJ found Ms. Hayes was not disabled, and after the Appeals Council denied review, Ms. Hayes appealed in this district in a case styled as Hayes v. Colvin, No. 12-0809-VEH (N.D. Ala. filed Mar. 13, 2012). U.S. District Judge Virginia Hopkins remanded the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings, holding both the Appeals Council and the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Ms. Hayes's treating psychiatrist. Id.; (See R. 441-466). Following remand, a new hearing was held, after which the ALJ denied disability benefits on July 7, 2015. (R. 335-344). The Appeals Council denied review, and Ms. Hayes timely filed the instant appeal.

         Ms. Hayes was thirty-three years old on the date of her original application and thirty-nine years old at the time of the ALJ's decision now under review; she has a high school education. (See R. 343-44). Ms. Hayes has no relevant past work experience. (R. 26, 343). Ms. Hayes originally claimed she became disabled on August 25, 2009, due to diabetes mellitus, asthma, and "nerves." (R. 134).

         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 of 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, the ALJ found Ms. Hayes had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (R. 337). At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Hayes suffered from the following severe impairments: asthma, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD"), and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ found Ms. Hayes did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments. (R. 337). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Ms. Hayes had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(b) with the following limitations: (1) never climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; (2) no more than frequent handling, fingering, feeling, and performing gross and fine manipulation with both hands; (3) occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants; (4) no exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights, dangerous or moving machinery, or uneven terrain; (5) occasional decision-making; (6) occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public; and (7) no performance of tandem or team tasks. (R. 339). The ALJ also determined Ms. Hayes's RFC allowed her "to understand, remember, and carry out simple work instructions for two hours at a time" and, with normal breaks, to complete an eight-hour workday. (Id.).

         At step four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") to determine Ms. Hayes was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 344). The ALJ concluded his decision by finding Ms. Hayes was not disabled. (Id.).


         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 Fed.Appx. 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 ...

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