United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
MARK E. HILL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
JOHN E. OTT, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Mark E. Hill brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Doc. 1). The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference dated January 14, 2013. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (Doc. 11). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), FED. R. CIV. P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be reversed and remanded.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff was 43 years old at the time of the administrative hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. 33). He has an eleventh grade education and past relevant work as a golf course laborer. (R. 21, 45-46).
In May 1997, Plaintiff sustained a compound right ankle fracture in a motor vehicle accident. (R. 230, 391). The fracture required repeat surgeries. (R. 230-34). Plaintiff ultimately developed an infection requiring debridement and hardware removal in July 2003. (R. 391). The wound required additional debridement in December 2003 and April 2004. (R. 236, 391).
Plaintiff also underwent surgery for a herniated disc in October 2000. (R. 349). He underwent re-exploration surgery and a microlaminectomy in January 2001. (R. 340).
Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on August 17, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 15, 2003, due to right leg pain and ankle pain. (R. 14, 98-109, 146). His claim was denied initially. (R. 51-54). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held on April 16, 2012. (R. 29-50). Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. (R. 31). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 23).
Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. (R. 7). The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review on May 3, 2013. (R. 1-6). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asserting that the findings of the Commissioner are not based upon substantial evidence and that improper legal standards were applied. (Doc. 1).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This court must "scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. It is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id.
The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations define "disabled" as "the inability to do 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 (12) months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a "physical or mental impairment" which "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.
The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:
(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the ...