United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
plaintiff, David Spears, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying his applications for a
period of disability, Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”). Mr. Spears 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).
Spears was fifty-one years old at the time of the
Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”)
decision, and he has an eighth grade education. (Tr. at
261-62.) His past work experiences include employment as a
truck driver and roofer. (Tr. at 217.) Mr. Spears claims that
he became disabled on August 20, 2013, due to bilateral
shoulder degenerative joint disease, chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (“COPD”), high blood pressure,
irregular heartbeat, depression, chronic bronchitis, and
osteoarthritis in the knees. (Tr. at 78.)
Social Security Administration has established a five-step
sequential evaluation process for determining whether an
individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920;
see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th
Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order
until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if
no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next
step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to
determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial
gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the
plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to
the next step.
second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined
severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable
physical and mental impairments. See Id.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An
individual impairment or combination of impairments that is
not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy
the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of
not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends
on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart
v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971)
(concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the
record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff
was not disabled).
the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the
plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments
meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment
and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the
evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does
not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the
evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to
the fourth step. See Id. §§ 404.1520(e),
416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to
determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the
requirements of his past relevant work. See Id.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the
plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does
not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the
evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See
fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the
plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in
order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an
adjustment to other work. See Id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can
perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled.
Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform
other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g),
the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr.
Spears met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act through December 1, 2014. (Tr. at 37.) He
further determined that Mr. Spears has not engaged in SGA
since the alleged onset of his disability. (Id.)
According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's bilateral shoulder
degenerative joint disease, left knee osteoarthritis,
hypertension, cervical degenerative disk disease, and COPD
are considered “severe” based on the requirements
set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, he
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 41.) The ALJ did not find Mr.
Spears's allegations to be totally credible, and he
determined that Mr. Spears has the following RFC:
to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except with no more than
occasional pushing and pulling with the upper and lower
extremities; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no
more than infrequent balancing; no more than occasional
kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no more than occasional
overhead reaching bilaterally; no more than occasional work
in environments involving exposure to extreme cold; no work
with hazardous machinery or unprotected heights; and no more
than occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants.
to the ALJ, Mr. Spears is unable to perform any of his past
relevant work, is “closely approaching advanced age,
” and has a “limited education, ” as those
terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 44.) The ALJ
determined that transferability of job skills was not an
issue because Mr. Spears does not have past relevant work.
(Tr. at 45.) Because Mr. Spears cannot perform the full range
of light work, the ALJ enlisted a Vocational Expert
(“VE”) and used Medical-Vocational Rule 202.10 as
a guideline for finding that there are a significant number
of jobs in the national economy that Mr. Spears is capable of
performing, such as sorter, electrical accessories assembler,
and small parts assembler. (Id.) The ALJ ultimately
concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled from August 20,
2013, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 46.)
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 F. App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing
Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155,
1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This 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).
this 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
this 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 legal
standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v.
Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Spears alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed
and remanded for four reasons. First, he contends that the
ALJ's RFC finding is conclusory and violates Social
Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8a. Second, he argues
that the ALJ erred in finding his subjective complaints of
pain not credible and asserts that SSR 16-3p, which became
effective on March 28, 2016, should have been applied. Third,
he contends that the ALJ erred in failing to apply Grid Rule
201.11 to direct a finding of disabled at step five. Fourth,
he argues that the Appeals Council refused to review new
evidence he submitted solely because it was dated after the
ALJ's decision without considering whether the new