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Kelley v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

March 29, 2018

MORT KELLEY, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Mort Kelley appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Doc. 1). Plaintiff 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). For the reasons stated below, this matter is due to be remanded to the Commissioner.


         Plaintiff was fifty-four years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (See R. 24, 26). Plaintiff has a high school education and speaks English. (R. 24). Plaintiff's past work experience includes work as a construction supervisor and construction manager. (R. 24). Plaintiff alleges a disability onset of August 2, 2013, due to mental state issues, short term memory problems, high blood pressure, ear cysts, and problems with his left arm, left elbow, and right shoulder. (R. 225).

         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 whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, 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 Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of his disability. (R. 16). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: generalized anxiety disorder; major depressive disorder; adjustment disorder; obesity; and status post open reduction and internal fixation of the left upper extremity. (R. 16-17).

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments. (R. 17-19). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) with the following exertional and non-exertional limitations:

[T]he claimant is able to occasionally use left non-dominant hand controls. He can frequently reach overhead as well as in all other directions with his right dominant hand. He can reach in all other directions with his left non-dominant hand occasionally. He can frequently handle, finger and feel with his left non-dominant hand. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders or scaffolds. He can frequently balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. The claimant should never be exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, dangerous tools, hazardous processes or operate commercial motor vehicles. He can tolerate moderate noise in the workplace. The undersigned further finds that the claimant could perform routine and repetitive tasks and make simple work related decisions. He could do simple routine repetitive tasks but would be unable to do detailed or complex tasks. He is able to make simple, routine work-related decisions. He could have occasional interaction with the general public and co-workers and could maintain frequent interaction with supervisors. He would be able to accept constructive non-confrontational criticism, work effectively alone or in secluded work areas or environments and would be able to accept changes in the work place setting if introduced gradually and infrequently. He would be unable to perform assembly line work with production rate pace but could perform other goal-oriented work. In addition to normal workday breaks, he would be off-task 5% of an 8-hour workday (non-consecutive minutes).

(R. 19-20).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. (R. 24). Because the Plaintiff's RFC did not allow for the full range of medium work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") in finding a significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (R. 25). The ALJ concluded by finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 25-26).


         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)).

         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).


         Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and benefits should be awarded because the ALJ's decision: (1) was not based on substantial evidence; (2) erred in its assessment of Plaintiff's credibility; and (3) erred by failing to consider whether Plaintiff is disabled under 12.05(C).[2] (Doc. 9 at 13). Plaintiff's arguments focus solely on the ALJ's conclusions regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments. (See generally Doc. 9). Accordingly, this opinion is limited to consideration of the ALJ's conclusions regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments.

         The timing of Plaintiff's alleged disability onset-August 2, 2013-suggests it principally was triggered by a psychotic episode.[3] On August 5, 2013, Plaintiff was admitted to Walker Baptist Medical Center under a court order; he was experiencing an altered mental state and exhibited suicidal and homicidal ideation, as well as evidence of decompensation. (R. 265, 310). Plaintiff's altered mental state began on August 2, 2013, but was noted to be a "recurrent problem." (R. 266). On admission, Plaintiff made "bizarre statements, " including that he knew "Jesus is under the stairwell." (R. 265). Plaintiff's brother and then-wife reported he had been psychotic, making "increased references to God and Satan, [and considering] committing suicide." (R. 266). On admission, Plaintiff demonstrated: (1) an anxious mood; (2) paranoid and delusional thought content; (3) impaired cognition and memory; (4) inappropriate judgement; and (5) homicidal and suicidal ideation. (See R. 268). Plaintiff was admitted to inpatient psychiatric care at Walker Baptist, where he stated the admitting doctor was Satan because he was wearing black clothing. (See R. 265, 268).

         Plaintiff was subsequently committed to the State Department of Mental Health and transferred to North Alabama Regional Hospital for treatment, where he was under observation "for safety." (R. 306-07, 310). Plaintiff was discharged on September 13, 2013. (R. 306). Following discharge, Plaintiff initially lived with his brother. (R. 307-08). Plaintiff and his then-wife subsequently divorced. (See Doc. 9 at 28).

         The records from Plaintiff's involuntary psychiatric hospitalization indicate opioid addiction and/or poly-substance abuse contributed to his mental impairment. (See, e.g., R. 265). Years prior to his hospitalization, Plaintiff was prescribed opiate painkillers following a severe arm fracture when he fell from a scaffold at work; he subsequently became addicted to painkillers. (R. 47). Plaintiff still suffers from frequent pain due to his arm injury. (Id.). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified he was undergoing Suboxone treatment and had not taken any opiate painkillers since early 2013. (Id.). The record contains treatment notes from MedplexMD, a Suboxone clinic, documenting Plaintiff's treatment from April 11, 2013, through the date of the hearing. (R. 346-79). The MedplexMD records include Plaintiff's statements that Suboxone was ...

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