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Smith v. Saul

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

January 8, 2020

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         Claimant, Robin Dodson Smith, commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on January 18, 2019, seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and thereby denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Upon review of the record and briefs, and for the reasons stated herein, the court remands this case to the Commissioner.

         The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See, e.g., Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).

         Claimant's alleged disability began on February 1, 2009, and she last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2011.[1] The ALJ found that claimant suffered from severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary insufficiency (CPI), but concluded that she, nevertheless, was capable of performing light work, with limitations including occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, along with the need to avoid hazards or odors, dusts, fumes, chemicals, and other pulmonary irritants.[2]

         Claimant contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts the following arguments:

1. The ALJ failed to find claimant disabled pursuant to Grid 202.04 based on her advanced age of 55 and limitation to light work.
2. The ALJ failed to consider that plaintiff's condition of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is on the Compassionate Allowance List, and entitled to special consideration.
3. ALJ failed to properly determine the date of disability pursuant to Social Security Ruling 83-20, finding only that she was not disabled prior to December 31, 2011, the date last insured.
4. The ALJ improperly drew adverse inferences from lack of medical treatment.
5. The ALJ failed to give consideration to Claimant's excellent work history in assessing the testimony of Claimant.
6. The finding that Claimant can perform her past work, as of the date last insured, is not supported by substantial evidence, and is not in accordance with proper legal standards.
7. The ALJ denial was not based on substantial evidence.

Doc. no. 7, at 2.

         The court notes at the outset of discussion that this is an insured benefit case under Title II, [3] and that the claimant's claim for disability is limited to the insured benefit period of February 1, 2009 (the date of alleged onset) to December 31, 2011 (the date on which claimant was last insured). The claimant, now 61 years of age, was 55 years old upon the date she was last insured. Her past relevant work is as a preschool teacher/helper, robotic welder, and kindergarten teacher/aid.[4] In addition, her social security earnings are consistent without any significant non-earning periods back to the year 1991 through her date of last insured of December 31, 2011. There are no medical opinions regarding the claimant's functional capacity and limitations during the insured period.[5] Claimant's medical records during the insured period are sparse, but they frame a picture of an individual suffering from severe abdominal and back pain. Her abdominal and lower-back pains stem from acute urinary tract infections and bladder issues.[6] Her other back pain is associated with osteoporosis and a compression fracture of the thoracic vertebrae at T-7.[7] Claimant filed her initial application for disability benefits on September 23, 2015, but the case was not heard by the ALJ until June 19, 2017.

         Claimant's first assertion is that the ALJ failed to use the Medical Vocational Guidelines, otherwise known as the “grids, ”[8] to determine that claimant was disabled. The problem with this argument, as correctly argued by the Commissioner, is that the grids are not used until step five of the sequential process, and only then upon a finding that a claimant cannot perform her past relevant work. Since the ALJ found that the claimant could perform her past relevant work, this argument is without merit in this case. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2 ยง 200.00(a) (which provides that the grid rules apply ...

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