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Owens v. Berryhill

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

September 17, 2018

Lantha Owens, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         The 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).

         Ms. 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.)

         The 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.

         The 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).

         Similarly, 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).

         If the 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 id.

         The 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), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying 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).

         According 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.)

         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 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).

         Nonetheless, 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)).

         However, 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).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. 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.

         A. Severe Impairments

         Plaintiff 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, 416.920(c), 416.921.

         At step 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 disorder.

         In 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.)

         Thus, 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 harmless).

         B. Meeting a Listing

         Plaintiff 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 these listings.

         To 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 531.

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