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Trotter v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

June 20, 2018

ELOISE D. TROTTER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         The 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. §' 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.

         Ms. 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.

         In Ms. 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 56-57).

         Ms. 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 followed.

         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; 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. ' 404.1545(a).

         The 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. 1999).

         Applying 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.

         The ALJ 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).

         According 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.)

         II. Standard of Review

         This 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).

         III. ...


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