United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
SHARON WILSON, o.b.o. T.M.W., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KATHERINE P. NELSON, Magistrate Judge.
Social Security Claimant/Plaintiff Sharon Wilson, on behalf of her minor child T.M.W.,  has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. By the consent of the parties (Doc. 18), the Court has designated the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. (Doc. 19).
Upon consideration of the parties' briefs (Docs. 15, 16), the administrative record (Doc. 14) (hereinafter cited as "(R. [page number(s)])"), and the arguments of counsel made at the hearing held April 1, 2015, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED.
I. Procedural Background
This is the second time Wilson has challenged the Commissoner's final decision denying her benefits. Wilson filed an SSI application on March 16, 2007. (R. 25). Social Security Administration ("SSA") Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Tracy S. Guice first issued an unfavorable decision on Wilson's application on June 29, 2009, finding that T.M.W. was "not disabled" under the Social Security Act. ( See R. 22-36). The Appeals Council for the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, after considering additional evidence, issued a decision on March 9, 2012, denying Wilson's request for review of ALJ Guice's decision. (R. 1-7).
On May 8, 2012, Wilson sought judicial review of the Commissioner's March 9, 2012 final decision under § 1383(c)(3) with this Court. See Wilson v. Astrue, S.D. ALA Case No. 2:12-cv-307-C (hereinafter, " Wilson I "). After briefing was completed and oral argument was held, on March 1, 2013, Magistrate Judge William Cassady, to whom the parties had consented under § 636(c) and Rule 73, reversed the Commissioner's decision and remanded for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). ( See R. 351-367); Wilson I, No. CA 2:12-00307-C, 2013 WL 788075, at *1 (S.D. Ala. Mar. 1, 2013). More specifically, Judge Cassady found that ALJ Guice had failed to properly consider an April 13, 2007 questionnaire completed by one of T.M.W.'s teachers, Mary Howard, by only discussing those parts of the questionnaire that supported ALJ Guice's ultimate determination of "not disabled" while failing to discuss other portions of the questionnaire that indicated more severe impairments. See (R. 363-367); Wilson I, 2013 WL 788075, at *7-9. Judge Cassady thus reversed and remanded "for further proceedings not inconsistent with [his] decision." (R. 351, 366-367). Wilson I, 2013 WL 788075, at *9. The Commissioner did not appeal Judge Cassady's judgment.
Following remand, on May 13, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's previous final decision and remanded the case to an ALJ "for further proceedings consistent with the order of the court." (R. 347-350). The Appeals Council also consolidated the proceedings for Wilson's March 16, 2007 SSI application with those for a subsequent application for disability benefits Wilson filed March 10, 2010, and ordered the ALJ to "issue a new decision on the consolidated claims." (R. 347-350).
On April 7, 2014, a video hearing on Wilson's applications was held before ALJ Ricky V. South. (R. 306-307). On June 6, 2014, ALJ South issued an unfavorable decision on Wilson's application. (R. 304-326). Because the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction over Wilson's case, ALJ South's decision constitutes the Commissioner's final decision after remand. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484; (R. 305). Wilson filed the present request for judicial review of that decision under § 1383(c)(3) on August 28, 2014.
II. Standard of Review
"In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion."'" Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). However, the Court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].'" Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983))). "Even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s factual findings, we must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.'" Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
"Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [The court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]" Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted). "In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must...tak[e] into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision." Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Moreover, "[t]here is no presumption...that the Commissioner followed the appropriate legal standards in deciding a claim for benefits or that the legal conclusions reached were valid. Instead, [the court] conduct[s] an exacting examination' of these factors." Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)) (internal citation omitted). In sum, courts "review the Commissioner's factual findings with deference and the Commissioner's legal conclusions with close scrutiny." Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). See also Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) ("In Social Security appeals, we review de novo the legal principles upon which the Commissioner's decision is based. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, we review the resulting decision only to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004)."). "The [Commissioner]'s failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.'" Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)).
"Eligibility for...SSI requires that the claimant be disabled. 42 U.S.C. §...1382(a)(1)-(2)." Thornton v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 597 F.Appx. 604, 609 (11th Cir. Feb. 11, 2015) (per curiam) (unpublished). "An individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled...if that individual has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and 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.A. § 1382c(C)(i). "Notwithstanding [§ 1382c(C)](i), no individual under the age of 18 who engages in substantial gainful activity...may be considered to be disabled." Id. § 1382c(C)(ii).
The Social Security Administration uses a sequential, three-step analysis to determine whether a child is disabled. The claimant must establish (1) whether the child is working; (2) whether the child has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; and (3) whether the child's impairment or combination of impairments meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of an impairment in the Listing of Impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a); id. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.To determine whether an impairment or combination of impairments "functionally equals" a listed impairment, the administrative law judge assesses the claimant on six domains, including (1) acquiring and using information; (2) attending and completing tasks; (3) interacting and relating with others; (4) moving about and manipulating objects; (5) caring for himself; and (6) health and physical well-being. Id. §§ 416.926a(a), (b)(1), (d). The claimant must establish that he suffers from an "extreme" limitation in one of the domains, or "marked" limitations in two of the domains. Id. § 416.926a(a). A "marked" limitation is one that "interferes seriously with [the claimant's] ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." Id. § 416.926a(e)(2)(i). "Marked' limitation also means a limitation that is more than moderate' but less than extreme.' It is the equivalent of the functioning we would expect to find on standardized testing with scores that are at least two, but less than three, standard deviations below the mean." Id.
Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 14-12154, 2015 WL 1774488, at *3-4 (11th Cir. Apr. 20, 2015) (published). "The burden lies with the claimant to prove that he meets or equals a Listing." Gray ex rel. Whymss v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 454 F.Appx. 748, 750 (11th Cir. Dec. 8, 2011) (per curiam) ...