United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
Scott Coogler United States District Judge.
plaintiff, Lantha Owens, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying her applications for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), a period of
disability, and Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”). Ms. Owens 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).
Owens was 45 years old on her July 3, 2014, alleged onset
date, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 53, 194,
201.) Her past work experiences include employment as a cool
spoil winder. (Tr. at 53, 242, 246.) Ms. Owens alleges that
she suffers from “bipolar 1 disorder, recurrent with
multiple psychiatric admissions due to psychosis, suicidal
and homicidal ideation, severe depression, severe neck pain
s/p anterior fusion at ¶ 6-7 with radiculopathy
following surgery on 1/21/10, right carpal tunnel syndrome,
and severe low back pain with bilateral sciatica.”
(Doc. 12 at 3.)
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 Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) first found that Ms. Owens was
insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 45.) He
further determined that Ms. Owens has not engaged in SGA
since July 3, 2014, the alleged disability onset date.
(Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's mood
disorder, hypertension, and disorders of the back with a
history of an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion
(“ACDF”) at ¶ 6-C7 are considered
“severe” based on the requirements set forth in
the regulations. (Id.) However, he found 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 48.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Owens's
allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that
she has the following RFC: light, unskilled work but she: (1)
could not climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds or work at
unprotected heights or with hazardous machinery; (2) could
only occasionally stoop, crouch, or crawl; (3) could no more
than frequently reach overhead bilaterally; and (4) could
only occasionally interact with the general public and no
more than frequently interact with co-workers and
supervisors. (Tr. at 49-50).
to the ALJ, Ms. Owens is unable to perform any of her past
relevant work, she is “a younger individual age 18-49,
” has a “high school education, ” and is
able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by
the regulations. (Tr. at 53.) Because Plaintiff cannot
perform the full range of light work, the ALJ enlisted a
vocational expert (“VE”) to aid in his ultimate
determination that there is a significant number of jobs in
the national economy that she is capable of performing,
including garment sorter, shipping/receiving weigher, and
laundry sorter. (Tr. at 54.) The ALJ concluded his findings
by stating that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as
defined in the Social Security Act, at any time through the
date of his decision. (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 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)). 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 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).
Owens alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed
and remanded for several reasons: (1) the ALJ failed to
consider all of her severe impairments at step two; (2) the
ALJ should have determined at step three that Plaintiff met
or equaled either Listing 12.04 and/or Listing 12.06C; (3)
the ALJ failed to state adequate reasons for finding
Plaintiff not credible; (4) the ALJ's RFC finding was
conclusory and violated Social Security Ruling
(“SSR”) 96-8a; and (5) the Appeals Council erred
in refusing to review Plaintiff's case.
claims that the ALJ failed to consider her bipolar disorder a
severe impairment at step two, noting that she has been
diagnosed with that condition. However, Plaintiff's first
argument does not warrant reversal of this case. As an
initial matter, a mere diagnosis does not establish that a
particular condition is disabling. See Moore v.
Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1213 n.6 (11th Cir. 2005).
Importantly, Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that an
impairment is severe. See Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278.
A severe impairment is an impairment or combination of
impairments that significantly limits a claimant's
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521,
two, the ALJ found in Plaintiff's favor by finding that
she had several severe impairments, including a mood
disorder, hypertension, and disorders of the back with a
history of an ACDF at ¶ 6-C7. (Tr. at 45). In making
this finding, the ALJ expressly acknowledged that Plaintiff
had received diagnoses of both bipolar disorder and a mood
disorder in 2014 and thoroughly discussed the evidence
relating to Plaintiff's mental conditions. (Tr. at
46-47). The ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's severe
impairments included a mood disorder thus encompassed
Plaintiff's bipolar disorder diagnosis. Indeed, the
National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) recognizes
that the term “mood disorder” encompasses bipolar
proceeding with the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
then went on to consider all of Plaintiff's conditions
and complaints, not just her mood disorder, hypertension, and
back disorder. (Tr. at 45-54). The ALJ expressly discussed
Plaintiff's complaints of various mental symptoms,
including her allegations of limitations due to bipolar
disorder, as well as her medical records concerning the
treatment she received for her mental health complaints and
conditions. (Tr. at 48-53). However, as further discussed
below, the ALJ determined that the record evidence did not
fully support Plaintiff's subjective complaints. As also
further discussed below, substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints
and finding that she retained an RFC to perform light work
with additional reaching, postural, and environmental
limitations, as well as mental restrictions to unskilled
work, only occasional contact with the general public, and no
more than frequent interaction with co-workers and
supervisors. (Tr. at 49-50.)
not only did the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff had a
severe impairment of a mood disorder encompass
Plaintiff's bipolar disorder diagnosis, but the ALJ's
consideration of Plaintiff's mental condition after
proceeding past step two rendered harmless any alleged error
in not separately identifying bipolar disorder as one of
Plaintiff's severe impairments in his step two finding.
See Jamison v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 585, 588 (11th Cir.
1987) (noting that step two is “a filter” in
concluding that the finding of any severe impairment
is sufficient to satisfy step two requirements); Burgin
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 420 Fed.Appx. 901, 902-03
(11th Cir. 2011) (any “severe” impairment
satisfies step two because the ALJ is required to consider
impairments that are not “severe” when proceeding
beyond step two; even if ALJ erred in finding some
impairments not “severe, ” the error is
Meeting a Listing
next contends that the ALJ should have found that her mental
impairments met Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) and/or
Listing 12.06C (anxiety disorders) because she was
hospitalized for mental conditions three times: in April
2011, December 2012, and July 2014. Plaintiff's second
argument fails because, although she block quotes a number of
her treatment notes and a portion of her own hearing
testimony in her briefs, she fails to explain how any of
these records show that she actually met all the criteria of
establish a presumption of disability based upon a listing at
step three, a claimant must show “a diagnosis included
in the Listings and must provide medical reports documenting
that the conditions met the specific criteria of the Listings
and the duration requirement.” Wilson v.
Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002)
(citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1525, 404.1526, 416.925, 416.926. Additionally, a
claimant's impairments must meet or equal all of
the specified medical criteria in a particular listing for
the claimant to be disabled at step three. Sullivan v.
Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-32 (1990). “A claimant
cannot qualify for benefits under the ‘equivalence'
step by showing that the overall functional impact of his
unlisted impairment or combination of impairments is as
severe as that of a listed impairment.” Id. at