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Southard v. Colvin

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

March 16, 2015



JOHN H. ENGLAND, III, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Willie Loys Southard, Jr. ("Southard"), seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Southard timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). After careful consideration of the record, and for the reasons stated below, the decision is REVERSED and REMANDED to the Commissioner for further development, as set forth herein.

I. Factual and Procedural History

Southard was forty-one years old, having been born February 12, 1971, at the time of his hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), on March 19, 2012. (Tr. 36, 39). Southard was unsure how far he went in school but thought he completed either sixth or seventh grade in special education classes. (Tr. 40). He previously worked as a rock crusher, a road construction shoveler, and a lumber handler which are all heavy exertion jobs, with the rock crusher being semi-skilled work and the shoveler and lumber handler being unskilled work. (Tr. 51).

Southard applied for DIB on June 14, 2010, alleging an initial onset date of August 21, 2006. (Tr. 114). Southard's application was denied on November 10, 2010 (tr. 57-59), and he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 62). After the hearing, the ALJ denied Southard's claim on April 27, 2012. (Tr. 19-29). Southard sought review by the Appeals Council, but the Council denied his request on August 9, 2013. (Tr. 1-5). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision on the Commissioner. Southard then initiated this action on October 8, 2013. (Doc. 1).

II. Standard of Review[2]

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 the proper legal standards were applied. See Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The 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) (citations omitted). This Court will determine that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence if it finds "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id. The Court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed de novo, "because no presumption of validity attached 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 failed to provide the Court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has been conducted, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

To establish entitlement for a period of disability and DIB, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[3] 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 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 engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant's alleged impairment (or combination of impairments) is "severe";
(3) whether the claimant's severe impairment satisfies or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 ...

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