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Hunter v. Colvin

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

September 8, 2014

SONYA HUNTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Sonya Hunter brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ["DIB"]. (Doc. 1.)[1] She has filed a Motion to Remand Pursuant to Sentence 6 and attached a decision, dated January 17, 2014, awarding her disability. (Doc. 13; doc. 13-1.) Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the court is of the opinion that Ms. Hunter's Motion to Remand Pursuant to Sentence 6, (doc. 13), is due to be denied, and the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff initially filed an application for DIB on May 4, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of May 3, 2009, (R. 150), [2] due to "nerve damage from 2 prior cervical surgeries fusion, severe nerve pain, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, thyroid condition, and sciatica with nerve pain in leg, " (R. 153). After the Social Security Administration ["SSA"] denied her application, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ["ALJ"], which was held on December 21, 2011. (R. 10.) After the hearing, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equivalent to one listed in, the Listing of Impairments. (R. 13); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). The ALJ also found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work with some specific restrictions, (R. 16), and that there are jobs in the national economy that would accommodate plaintiff's limitations, (R. 27). In light of these findings, the ALJ denied plaintiff's request for a period of disability and DIB on February 10, 2012. (R. 28-29.)

Plaintiff then requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. (R. 1.) The Appeals Council found no reason under its rules to review the ALJ's decision, and it denied her request for review. ( Id. ) Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. )

Following denial of review by the Appeals Council, Ms. Hunter filed an appeal in this court. (Doc. 1.) She requests "relief or judgment as the [c]ourt may deem just and equitable." ( Id. at 2.) After filing her appeal, Ms. Hunter filed a Motion to Remand Pursuant to Sentence 6 of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 13.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A. MOTION TO REMAND

"Section 405(g) permits a district court to remand an application for benefits to the Commissioner... by two methods, which are commonly denominated sentence four remands' and sentence six remands, ' each of which remedies a separate problem." Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1261 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "The sixth sentence of section 405(g) provides a federal court the power to remand the application for benefits to the Commissioner for the taking of additional evidence upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.'" Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1261 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "[A] sentence six remand is appropriate only when the claimant submits evidence for the first time to the district court that might have changed the outcome of the administrative proceeding." Timmons v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 F.Appx. 897, 902 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1267-68). "New evidence is material, and thus warrants a remand, if there is a reasonable possibility that the new evidence would change the administrative outcome.'" Id. at 902-903 (citing Hyde v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 456, 459 (11th Cir. 1987)).

B. APPEAL OF THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court "is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]; rather [it] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)) (internal quotations and other citation omitted). "The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence." Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1221 (citing Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529; Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987)). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

The court reviews the Commissioner's conclusions of law de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. "[N]o... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law." Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).

III. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability and/or DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(1)-(2); Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986). "[A]n individual shall be considered to be disabled for purposes of [determining eligibility for DIB] if [she] is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also § 416(i)(1); § 423(d)(1)(A). The specific steps in the evaluation process are as follows:

1. Substantial Gainful Employment

First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 137 (1987).[3] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b); § 416.920(b). "Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity." Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 F.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).[4]

The ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 3, 2009. (R. 12.)

2. Severe Impairments

If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c). "[A] physical or mental impairment' is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3); § 1382c(a)(3)(D). The regulations provide: "[I]f you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); § 416.920(c). "An 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a); § 416.921(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments even though none of the individual impairments alone are disabling. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1001 (11th Cir. 1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; § 416.923. A claimant has the burden to show that she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 F.Appx. at 863.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "status post two cervical surgeries performed in 2006, with re-injury in 2009; degenerative disc disease of lumbar spine; obesity; fibromyalgia; depression; and anxiety." (R. 12.) The ALJ also found that her alleged ...


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