United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Teresa Hunter ("Hunter") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), who denied her application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Hunter timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons which follow, finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED.
II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Hunter was forty-eight years old on her alleged onset date. (Tr. 173). She graduated from high school and attended college for two years (Tr. 71-72, 195). She previously worked as a home health aide. (Tr. 24, 59). After undergoing back surgery in July 2010, Hunter used donated leave and Family and Medical Leave Act from August 2010 to May 2011, and then leave without pay from May to September 2011, and resigned on September 21, 2011. (Tr. 225). Hunter alleged disability due to spinal fusion surgery and kidney stones. (Tr. 195). She alleged that she became disabled on July 13, 2010. (Tr. 175).
Hunter protectively filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on September 17, 2010. (Tr. 9, 76-77). The Social Security Administration denied these applications on November 24, 2010. (Tr. 76-77). She timely requested and appeared at two hearings before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), on March 12, 2012, and September 4, 2012. (Tr. 19, 48). The ALJ issued a decision, dated September 28, 2012, denying her application. (Tr. 6). The Appeals Council ("AC") denied Hunter's request for review on October 9, 2013. (Tr. 1-4).
Hunter filed a complaint with this court on November 25, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered on March 21, 2014. (Doc. 9). Hunter filed a supporting brief (Doc. 12) on April 30, 2014, and the Commissioner responded with her own (Doc. 13) on June 4, 2014. Hunter then filed a reply brief on June 12, 2014. (Doc. 14).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this 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 (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.
This 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 that 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).
IV. 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 an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about 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 ...