United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
ELOISE D. TROTTER, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
plaintiff, Eloise D. Trotter, appeals from the decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Ms. Trotter
timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and
the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. Â§' 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have
consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate
judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). Accordingly, the
court enters this memorandum opinion.
Trotter filed her application for benefits on November 14,
2011. She was 51 years old at the time of the Administrative
Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) final decision, and
she has a high school education, with special education
classes, and community college training as a nursing
assistant. (Tr. at 25, 53-55). Her past work experience
includes work as a day care worker and hospital cleaner. (Tr.
at 575). Ms. Trotter claims that she became disabled on
February 24, 2010, and has asserted that she is mildly
mentally retarded. (Tr. at 153). Ms. Trotter received
disability payments beginning in 1993, based upon her
diagnosis of mental retardation (tr. at 446) and pursuant to
Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 110 S.Ct. 885, 107
L.Ed.2d 967 (1990), which required the Commissioner to
consider the functionality of the recipient of childhood
disability claims, rather than focusing solely on whether the
child met or equaled an SSA listing. In granting benefits in
1993, the SSA found that Ms. Trotter's “I.Q.
testing done at age 27 remains valid to date and represents a
true estimate of her intellectual functioning.” (Tr. at
447). Under the Sullivan decision, a child can
receive disability benefits by showing that his impairment is
as severe as one that would prevent an adult from working.
493 U.S. at 541.
Trotter's case, the Commissioner continued disability
payments to her for seventeen years, after further
determining that the claimant had not shown any medical
improvement. (Id.) Disability payments ceased in
2010, however, based upon the fact that Ms. Trotter engaged
in substantial gainful activity by working at Brookwood
Hospital cleaning hospital rooms for about two years. She was
fired from that job because she wasn't able to
“keep up.” (Tr. at 477). She attempted to find
other jobs, but was unable to pass any written tests. (Tr. at
Trotter filed the application for benefits at issue here in
2011. She was initially denied, and then sought and received
a hearing. (Tr. at 33-76). The ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision on September 13, 2013 (tr. at 108-19), from which
Ms. Trotter appealed. The Appeals Council vacated the
ALJ's decision and remanded the matter for further
evaluation of the plaintiff 's mental impairment. (Tr. at
125-26). A second hearing was held on July 14, 2015. (Tr. at
545-83). The ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision on
August 18, 2015 (tr. at -16-27), from which Ms. Trotter
appealed. The Appeals Council denied review, and this appeal
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; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245
F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a
determination of whether the claimant is “doing
substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. ''
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant
is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she
is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of
the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R.
'' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These
impairments must be severe and must meet the durational
requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled.
Id. The decision depends upon 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, which is a determination of
whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the
severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. ''
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the
claimant's impairments fall within this category, she
will be found disabled without further consideration.
Id. If she does not, a determination of the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) will be made and the analysis proceeds to
the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(e),
416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment
based on all relevant evidence of a claimant's remaining
ability to do work despite his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R.
fourth step requires a determination of whether the
claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past
relevant work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the
evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past
relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.
Id. Step five requires the court to consider the
claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age,
education, and past work experience, in order to determine if
she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. ''
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do
other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The
burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the
claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that
burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to
perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled.
Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir.
the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms.
Trotter has not been under a disability within the meaning of
the Social Security Act from the date of her application
(November 14, 2011) through the date of her decision (August
18, 2015). (Tr. at 27). She determined that Ms. Trotter has
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged
onset of her disability. (Tr. at 18). According to the ALJ,
claimant's obesity, osteoarthritis of the right knee,
borderline intellectual functioning, and dysthymic disorder
are considered “severe” based on the requirements
set forth in the regulations. (Id.) She further
determined 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 19-20). More specifically, the
ALJ determined that the severity of the osteoarthritis,
singly or in combination with other impairments, does not
meet or medically equal Listing 1.02. (Id.) She
further determined that Ms. Trotter's “mental
impairments, ” considered singly and in combination
with other impairments, did not meet or medically equal
Listings 12.02 or 12.04. (Id.) The ALJ considered
whether the criteria of “paragraph B” were met,
but determined that the claimant's mental impairments did
not cause at least two “marked” limitations, and
did not result in “repeated” episodes of
decompensation of extended duration. The ALJ went on to
evaluate the “paragragh C” criteria, finding that
the claimant had not demonstrated the “inability to
function” outside of a highly supportive living
arrangement for a year or more, and had not shown the
evidence of, or likelihood of, repeated decompensation
episodes that would satisfy the “paragraph C”
requirements. (Tr. at 20). Based upon this finding, the ALJ
continued to the fourth step of the analysis.
found Ms. Trotter's allegations to be “not entirely
credible” (tr. at 21), and she determined that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a
limited range of light work. (Tr. at 21). The ALJ found that
the claimant should be subject to the following limitations:
she can occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and
frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds; she can sit for six
hours in an eight-hour work day and stand/walk for six hours
in and eight-hour workday; she should never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds, but can occasionally balance, stoop, or
crouch; she can understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions; can maintain attention and concentration for
two-hour periods; can adapt to routine and infrequent
workplace changes; and can have only occasional interactions
with the public. (Tr. at 21).
to the ALJ, Ms. Trotter is unable to perform any past
relevant work; she was a “younger individual age
18-49” at the date of onset, she has at least a high
school education, and she is able to communicate in English.
(Tr. at 25). She determined that transferability of skills is
not material to the determination of disability in this case
because her past work was unskilled. (Id.) The ALJ
found that there are a significant number of jobs in the
national economy that Ms. Trotter is capable of performing,
such as production assembler, small products assembler, and
cutlery/hardware worker. (Tr. at 26). The ALJ concluded her
findings by stating that the claimant is “not
disabled” under the Social Security Act. (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 Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual
findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies
close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v.
Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court
may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id.
“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
evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's
decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported
by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No.
decision is automatic, however, for “despite this
deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative
that the 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). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards
is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748
F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).