United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
Scott Coogler United States Disstrict Judge
plaintiff, Anitra Hightower, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying her applications for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms.
Hightower 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).
Hightower was thirty-eight years old at the time of the
Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”)
decision, and she attended school through the twelfth grade,
although she did not graduate. (Tr. at 42, 205.) Her past
work experiences include employment as a hair stylist, fast
food employee, and store manager. (Tr. at 21, 34-36, 191.)
Ms. Hightower claims that she became disabled on September
27, 2012, due to migraines, anxiety, shortness of breath, and
degenerative joint disease in both knees. (Tr. at 37-41, 178,
204.) During the hearing, Ms. Hightower also alleged problems
with depression and sleep apnea. (Tr. at 37-41).
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 first found that
Ms. Hightower met the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through September 30, 2015. (Tr. at 13.)
She found that Ms. Hightower has not engaged in SGA since the
alleged onset date. (Id.) According to the ALJ,
Plaintiff's osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees,
migraine headaches, obstructive sleep apnea, morbid obesity,
generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder and somatic
symptom disorder are considered “severe” based on
the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.)
However, the ALJ found that these impairments in combination
neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
(Tr. at 14.)
determined that Ms. Hightower has the RFC to perform
sedentary work with the following limitations: she cannot
have concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures or
exposure to hazards; she can only occasionally stoop, kneel,
crouch, or crawl; she can understand, remember, and carry out
simple instructions and attend to those for two-hour periods;
she should have limited and casual contact with the general
public; and changes to her work environment should be
infrequent and introduced gradually. (Tr. at 16.) The ALJ
next determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past
relevant work. (Tr. at 21.) She noted that she was a
“younger individual age 18-44, ” had a
“limited education” and could communicate in
English, as those terms are defined in the regulations.
(Id.) The ALJ then determined that considering
Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC,
there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that she can perform, including general
office clerk, inspector/sorter, and production and table
worker. (Tr. at 21-22, 55-57.) The ALJ concluded her findings
by stating that Ms. Hightower “was not under a
‘disability, ' as defined in the Social Security
Act, ” at any time through the date of her decision.
(Tr. at 21-23.)
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 ...