United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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.
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),
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.
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.).
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.
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.).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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)).
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 ...