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Edwards v. Saul

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

September 25, 2019

RONALD DALE EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler, United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Ronald Dale Edwards, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for a period of disability and Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Edwards 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).

         Mr. Edwards was 43 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision, and he has an eighth-grade education. (Tr. at 196.) His past work experiences include employment as grain clerk and hand packager. (Tr. at 61, 196). Mr. Edwards claims that he became disabled on April 8, 2014, after back surgery. (Tr. at 55). He alleges that he is totally disabled due to a back injury, depression, spinal stenosis, arthritis, bursitis, facet damage, leg and hip pain, and numbness. (Tr. at 195).

         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 ALJ found that Mr. Edwards meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 12.) The ALJ further determined that Mr. Edwards has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of his disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s dysfunction of major joints and degenerative disc disease of the spine are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, the ALJ 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 14.) The ALJ did not find Mr. Edwards’s allegations to be totally credible, and the ALJ determined that he has the following RFC: “light work . . . except he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, and vibration; and he should avoid all exposure to workplace hazards.” (Tr. at 15.)

         According to the ALJ, Mr. Edwards is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he is a “younger individual age 18-49, ” and he has a “limited education, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 18). The ALJ determined that “transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant’s past relevant work is unskilled.” (Id.) Because Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ enlisted a vocational expert (“VE”) and used Medical-Vocation Rule 202.17 as a guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he is capable of performing, such as assembler, mail clerk, and product marker. (Tr. at 19). The ALJ concluded the findings by stating that Plaintiff “has not been under a ‘disability, ’ as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 8, 2014, through the date of this 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

         One of Mr. Edwards’s arguments in support of reversal and remand is that with regard to his physical impairments, the only medical opinion to which the ALJ assigned great weight was of the State agency medical expert who never personally examined Mr. Edwards and who did not have the full record at the time of his assessment. This Court agrees that, based on this particular record, this case must be reversed and remanded on that ground. Further, for the reasons stated herein, on remand, the ALJ should reassess all of the medical opinions in the record.

         A. Applicable Standards Regarding Physicians’ Opinions

         The ALJ must articulate the weight given to different medical opinions in the record and the reasons therefore. See Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). The weight afforded to a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity of a claimant’s impairments depends, among other things, upon the examining and treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to support the opinion, how consistent the ...


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