United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
LEROY N. EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KATHERINE P. NELSON, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Leroy N. Edwards brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by, and this case has been ordered referred to, the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). ( See Docs. 19 and 20.)
Upon consideration of the administrative record ("R.") (Doc. 13), Edwards's brief (Doc. 14), the Commissioner's brief (Doc. 15), and the arguments presented at the hearing held July 30, 2014 ( cf. Docs. 16 and 17), the Court has determined that the Commissioner's decision denying Edwards benefits should be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings not inconsistent with this decision.
I. Procedural Background
Edwards filed applications for DIB and SSI on February 1, 2011 ( see R. 137-145), alleging a disability onset date of September 26, 2010 ( see R. 10, 137, 141). His applications were initially denied. ( See R. 74-78.) A hearing was then conducted before an Administrative Law Judge on April 4, 2012. ( See R. 29-63) On July 20, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Edwards is not disabled (R. 7-28). Although he sought review from the Appeals Council, the Appeals Council issued a decision declining to review the ALJ's determination on October 10, 2013 ( see R. 1-6)-making that determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981-and a complaint was filed in this Court on November 19, 2013 ( see Doc. 1).
II. Standard of Review and Claims on Appeal
In all Social Security cases, a plaintiff (sometimes referred to as a claimant) bears the burden of proving that he or she is unable to perform his or her previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986). In evaluating whether that burden has been met, and thus a claimant has proven that he or she is disabled, the examiner (most often an ALJ) must consider the following four factors: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the plaintiff's age, education, and work history, see id.; and, in turn,
uses a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether the claimant is disabled, which considers: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the severe impairment meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments in the regulations; (4) if not, whether the claimant has the [residual functional capacity, or] RFC[, ] to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether, in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education and work experience, there are other jobs the claimant can perform.
Watkins v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.App'x 868, 870 (11th Cir. Feb. 9, 2012) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (c)-(f), 416.920(a)(4), (c)-(f); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004)) (footnote omitted).
If a plaintiff proves that he or she cannot do his or her past relevant work, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove that the plaintiff is capable-given his or her age, education, and work history-of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Id.; Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). Finally, but importantly, although "the [plaintiff] bears the burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair record." Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).
The task for this Court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision to deny a plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla, and means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). "In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision." Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Courts are precluded, however, from "deciding the facts anew or re-weighing the evidence." Davison v. Astrue, 370 Fed.App'x 995, 996 (11th Cir. Apr. 1, 2010) (per curiam) (citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)). And, "[e]ven if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [a court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing Crawford v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004)) (emphasis added).
On appeal to this Court, Edwards provides three reasons why, he believes, the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is in error ( i.e., not supported by substantial evidence):
(1) The ALJ "committed reversible error... by failing to give adequate and controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Michelle Jackson, M.D." (Doc. 14 at 2);
(2) The ALJ "committed reversible error... [by] failing to fulfill her duty to develop the record by ordering a consultative examination to resolve ...