Harris v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER OF REMAND that the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this action is REMANDED to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration as more fully set out in order. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 2/14/2017. (AHI)
2017 Feb-14 PM 01:59
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DAWN ARLITA HARRIS,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner, Social Security
Case No. 2:16-cv-1066-CLS
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND
Claimant, Dawn Arlita Harris, commenced this action on June 30, 2016,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of
the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”),
and thereby denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance, and
supplemental security income benefits.
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 Lamb v.
Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253
(11th Cir. 1983).
Claimant contends that the Commissioner’s decision is neither supported by
substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically,
claimant asserts that the ALJ failed to consider her carpal tunnel syndrome and
lumbar degenerative disc disease with pain syndrome to be severe impairments, and
that he failed to properly consider all of her impairments. Upon review of the record,
the court concludes that these contentions have merit, and this matter should be
remanded to the Commissioner for further review.
The ALJ found that claimant had only one severe impairment:
disorder/mild depression.1 Claimant asserts that the ALJ also should have classified
her carpal tunnel syndrome and lumbar degenerative disc disease with pain syndrome
as severe impairments. Social Security regulations define a “severe” impairment as
one that “significantly limits [a claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c) (alteration supplied).
impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which
has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere
with the individual’s ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work
experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d. 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984).
This court does not need to reach the decision of whether claimant’s carpal
tunnel syndrome and degenerative disc disease should have been classified as severe
impairments. As the Eleventh Circuit explained in Medina v. Social Security
Administration, 636 F. App’x 490 (11th Cir. 2016):
Step two of the [five-step process for adjudicating Social Security
claims, during which the Commissioner must determine whether the
claimant has a severe impairment] merely “acts as a filter” Jamison v.
Bowen, 814 F.2d 585, 588 (11th Cir. 1987). In other words, “if no
severe impairment is shown the claim is denied, but the finding of any
severe impairment, whether or not it qualifies as a disability and whether
or not it results from a single severe impairment or a combination of
impairments that together qualify as severe, is enough” to proceed with
the rest of the five-step analysis. Id. Thus, even if [the claimant’s] other
conditions should have been categorized as severe impairments, any
error was harmless because the ALJ determined that her obesity and
“thyroid cancer status post total thyroidectomy” were severe
impairments, allowing him to move onto step three of the test. See
Diorio v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 726, 728 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding that the
complained-of error was harmless because it did not impact the step
being challenged); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
Medina, 636 F. App’x at 492-93 (alterations supplied). In the present case, the ALJ
found that claimant suffered from other severe impairments and then proceeded to the
next step of the sequential analysis. Accordingly, even if the failure to also classify
carpal tunnel syndrome and degenerative disc disease as “severe” was in error, such
an error would have been harmless.
Claimant also asserts that the ALJ failed to consider her carpal tunnel
syndrome and disc disease at steps three, four, and five of the sequential process,
when determining whether she met a Listing, whether she could return to her past
relevant work, and whether she could perform other work existing in significant
numbers in the national economy. Social Security regulations state the following
with regard to the Commissioner’s duty in evaluating multiple impairments:
In determining whether your physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of a sufficient medical severity that such impairment or
impairments could be the basis of eligibility under the law, we will
consider the combined effect of all of your impairments without regard
to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of
sufficient severity. If we do find a medically severe combination of
impairments, the combined impact of the impairments will be considered
throughout the disability determination process. If we do not find that
you have a medically severe combination of impairments, we will
determine that you are not disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. See also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(e), 416.945(e) (stating that,
when the claimant has any severe impairment, the ALJ is required to assess the
limiting effects of all of the claimant’s impairments — including those that are not
severe — in determining the claimant’s residual functional capacity).
Here, the ALJ thoroughly discussed claimant’s lumbar degenerative disc
disease with pain syndrome,2 but he barely acknowledged claimant’s carpal tunnel
syndrome. Claimant mentioned carpal tunnel syndrome and problems with her hands
several times in her disability application paperwork.3 She also testified during the
administrative hearing that her bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome caused pain,
numbness, and swelling, and it prevented her from performing activities like opening
See Tr. 15-17, 20-22.
Tr. 352, 363-64, 379-81.
jars and bottles, gripping items, and buttoning a shirt. She wore hand splints and
stated that her doctors had recommended surgery, but she could not afford it.4
Moreover, claimant’s treating physician diagnosed her with bilateral carpal tunnel
syndrome,5 and an orthopedic specialist confirmed the diagnosis after a nerve
conduction study.6 Of course, a diagnosis does not necessarily mean a significant
functional limitation, but here, it cannot be determined whether the ALJ actually
evaluated the functional effects of claimant’s carpal tunnel syndrome. The ALJ
acknowledged that, during the administrative hearing, claimant “indicated she had
difficulty with her hands . . . .,”7 and he summarily stated that “[t]he physical findings
in the record do not establish the existence of . . . carpal tunnel symptoms . . .
indicative of protracted pain of the intensity, frequency, and severity alleged” by
plaintiff.8 Even so, there was no discussion of the medical records relating to
claimant’s carpal tunnel syndrome, and no explanation of why the record findings did
not support the alleged severity of her symptoms. Therefore, it cannot be determined
from the current record whether the ALJ adequately considered the effect of
claimant’s carpal syndrome in determining her residual functional capacity to perform
See Tr. 565, 561, 575, 579-80.
Tr. 708, 807-08, 811-13.
Tr. 16 (alteration and ellipses supplied).
a full range of work at all exertional levels.9 Remand is warranted to correct that
deficiency. See Williams v. Barnhart, 186 F. Supp. 2d 1192, 1198 (M.D. Ala. 2002)
(“Notwithstanding the diagnoses and objective evidence supporting the claimant’s
other impairments, the ALJ made no express determination as to the severity of the
claimant’s coronary disease, asthma, glaucoma, or obesity. Nor does the decision
reveal the extent to which the ALJ evaluated those symptoms or impairments beyond
step two of the sequential evaluation process. Accordingly, the ALJ’s failure to
consider or even address these impairments as a part of his determination of severity
was reversible error.”); Wuerth v. Astrue, No. 806-CV-1353-T-30TBM, 2008 WL
680211, at *5 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 7, 2008) (finding that “remand is warranted because
it is not possible to ascertain whether the ALJ considered each of Plaintiff’s
Based on the foregoing, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and this
action is REMANDED to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
for further findings on the effect of claimant’s carpal tunnel syndrome on her ability
to perform work-related activities, and for other proceedings consistent with this
memorandum opinion and order.
See Tr. 20 (“I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform [a] fullrange of work at all exertional levels as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except
she can frequently interaction [sic] with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. She can perform
simple, repetitive tasks.”) (alterations supplied).
The Clerk of Court is directed to close this file.
DONE this 14th day of February, 2017.
United States District Judge
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