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Robinson v. Colvin

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

July 1, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of, Social Security Administration, Respondent.


KARON OWEN BOWDRE, District Judge.

I. Introduction

The claimant, Maggie Louise Robinson, filed a Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income benefits on March 24, 2011.[1] (R. 46). The claimant alleges disability beginning on October 9, 2009 because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, cervical degenerative disc disease, and cocaine polysubstance abuse. (R. 14-15). The Social Security Administration denied her application and affirmed the denial on reconsideration. (R. 47). The claimant timely requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the hearing occurred on March 18, 2013. (R. 25, 56).

The ALJ denied the claimant SSI benefits on April 15, 2013, finding that the claimant was not disabled because she could perform medium work with some restrictions.[2] (R. 19). The claimant requested review by the Appeals Council on May 9, 2013, and the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review on March 19, 2014. (R. 1, 9). Having exhausted her administrative remedies, the claimant now properly appeals the ALJ's decision, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The claimant filed this appeal on May 20, 2014, sixty-two days after the administrative decision. (Doc. 10, at 9). For the reasons stated below, this court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

II. Issue Presented

The claimant presents one issue for review: whether the ALJ failed to develop the record fully and fairly when he did not order additional physical evaluations of the claimant's assertion of disability because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and cervical degenerative disc disease.

III. Standard of Review

The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court will overturn the Commissioner's decision only if she failed to apply the correct legal standard or if her factual conclusions are unsupported 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. " Id. at 999. The court does not review the Commissioner's findings of fact de novo, however. It affirms the factual determinations if they 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 keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors "are not medical opinions, ...but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416, 927(d). Whether a claimant meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court "may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence in the record supports it.

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 must also 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

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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

Because an ALJ hearing is not an adversarial proceeding, the ALJ has a duty to develop a full and fair record. Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003); Graham, 129 F.3d at 1422. The ALJ does not err in denying a request for a consultative examination if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1209-10 (11th Cir. 1988); see also Reeves v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 519, 522 n.1 (11th Cir. 1984). The ALJ's duty to develop a full and fair record does not shift the burden of proof to ...

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