United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Gerry Mack Sasnette (hereinafter "Mr. Sasnette") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. He seeks review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), who denied his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Mr. Sasnette timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Sasnette was 61 years old at the time of his hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 105). He graduated from a four-year college in 1984. (Tr. 142). His past work experience includes employment as a policy director, salesman, recruiter for a health training program, insurance claims examiner, stockbroker, and eligibility worker in health care. (Tr. 18). He claims he became disabled on January 17, 2011, due to his back problems, knee problems, and arthritis. (Tr. 105, 141). His last period of work ended on January 14, 2011. (Tr. 30).
On June 14, 2011, Mr. Sasnette protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and DIB. (Tr. 53). On July 27, 2011, the Commissioner initially denied his DIB claim. (Tr. 54). Mr. Sasnette timely filed a written request for a hearing on August 26, 2011. (Tr. 62-63). The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on September 12, 2012. (Tr. 11). On November 1, 2012, the ALJ issued her opinion concluding Mr. Sasnette was not disabled and denying him benefits. (Tr. 11-20). Mr. Sasnette timely petitioned the Appeals Council to review the decision on December 11, 2012. (Tr. 6). On January 10, 2014, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on his claim. (Tr. 1-3).
Mr. Sasnette filed a Complaint with this court on March 2, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1).The Commissioner answered on August 25, 2014. (Doc. 7). Mr. Sasnette filed a supporting brief (Doc. 11) on November 7, 2014, and the Commissioner responded with her own (Doc. 12) on December 8, 2014. With the parties having fully briefed the matter, the court has carefully considered the record and concludes that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be reversed and the case remanded.
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). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion 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. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court. The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
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" that "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 the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The sequential analysis goes as follows:
Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.
Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the ...