United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION 
G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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).
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).
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 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).
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
[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
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).
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)).
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).
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). (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.
timing of Plaintiff's alleged disability onset-August 2,
2013-suggests it principally was triggered by a psychotic
episode. 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.
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
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 ...