United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
KARON OWEN BOWDRE, Chief District Judge.
The claimant, Stanford Isbell, filed applications for a period of disability and Disability Insurance benefits on October 2, 2006, alleging disability commencing on June 8, 2006 because of back pain, depression, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, cervical and lumbar arthritis, degenerative disc disease, sleep apnea, hand injury, severe impairment of history of carpal tunnel release surgery, and fractured right foot. The Commissioner denied the claims. The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a video hearing on May 11, 2009.
In a decision dated July 14, 2009, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and, thus, was ineligible for Disability Insurance Benefits. (R. 135). The claimant appealed the decision on July 29, 2009. The Appeals Council remanded the case on March 19, 2010, instructing the ALJ inter alia to obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of claimant's impairments and to give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity.
The same ALJ held a second hearing on March 23, 2011. After the hearing, the claimant amended his onset date to February 17, 2009. On May 23, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying the claimant's application. (R. 24). On appeal, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. The claimant has exhausted his administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1631(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed and remanded.
II. ISSUE PRESENTED
Whether the ALJ failed to comply with the special instructions contained in the Appeals Council's order by not obtaining another Psychiatric Review Technique from a mental health expert after the remand.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if the factual conclusions are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).
"No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the Commissioner's factual determination de novo. The court will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is "more than a mere scintilla. It 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).
The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual findings." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not look only to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).
IV. LEGAL STANDARD
Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person cannot "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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential evaluation process:
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of "not disabled."
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
On remand by the Appeals Council, the administrative law judge must take any action that is ordered by the Appeals Council and may take any additional action that is not inconsistent with the Appeals ...