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Barefoot v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 7, 2015

MERITA DIANE BAREFOOT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CHARLES S. COODY, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction.

The plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging that she was unable to work because of a disability. Her application was denied at the initial administrative level. The plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Tracy S. Guice. Following the hearing, the ALJ also denied the claim. The Appeals Council rejected a subsequent request for review. The ALJ's decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner).[1] See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383(c)(3).[2] Based on the court's review of the record in this case and the briefs of the parties, the court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed and the case remanded to the Commissioner with instructions to award benefits to the plaintiff.

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person 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 12 months.

To make this determination[3] the Commissioner employs a five step, sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

(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).[4]

The standard of review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. This court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Ingram v. Comm. of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of the record which supports the decision of the ALJ but instead must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute... [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quotation marks omitted).

[The court must, however, ]... scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner's]... factual findings... No similar presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's]... legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims.

Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

III. The Issues

A. Introduction.

Barefoot was fifty-three years old on September 30, 2006, her date last insured. (R. 32). She has a twelfth grade education. (R. 32). Her work experience includes work as a bookkeeper in a medical office and part-time work at a plant nursery. (R. 33). Following the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded that, from the date of the alleged onset of disability (January 1, 2000) through the date last insured, Barefoot had the following severe impairments: history of breast cancer with bilateral mastectomies; history of diabetes insipidus secondary to pituitary disorder, benign; status post gallbladder surgery; and history of upper respiratory infections. (R. 18). The ALJ concluded that Barefoot was unable to perform her past relevant work. (R. 22). Nonetheless, the ALJ concluded that Barefoot was not disabled because, through her date last insured, she had the residual functional capacity to perform other work that is available in the national economy. (R. 22).

B. The Plaintiff's Claims. As stated by the plaintiff, her claims are

1. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to consider the August 13, 2012 opinion (R. 341-42) of Dr. McClintock, Barefoot's former physician and former employer, that Barefoot was disabled during the relevant period.
2. Whether the ALJ's assessment of Barefoot's residual functional capacity is based on substantial evidence; and
3. Whether new and material evidence warrants remand.

Because the court's consideration of the second issue leads to the conclusion that this case must be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, the court pretermits consideration of the remaining issues raised by the plaintiff.

IV. Discussion

A disability claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his past work. Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567 (11th Cir. 1990). In determining whether the claimant has satisfied this burden, the Commissioner is guided by four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability, e.g., the testimony of the claimant and his family or friends; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history. Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251 (11th Cir. 1983). The ALJ must conscientiously probe into, inquire of and explore all relevant facts to elicit both favorable and unfavorable facts for review. Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735-36 (11th Cir. 1981). The ALJ must also state, with sufficient specificity, the reasons for his decision referencing the plaintiff's impairments.

Any such decision by the Commissioner of Social Security which involves a determination of disability and which is in whole or in part unfavorable to such individual shall contain a statement of the case, in understandable language, setting forth a discussion of the evidence, and stating the Commissioner's determination and the reason or reasons upon which it is based.

42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1) (emphases added). Within this analytical framework, the court will address the plaintiff's argument that the ALJ's decision is ...


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