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Dial v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

February 2, 2017

STEPHEN ALLEN DIAL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On January 9, 2013, Plaintiff Stephen Allen Dial applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2013 due to schizophrenia. Dial's claim was denied at the initial administrative level. Dial requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On June 18, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing and, on September 25, 2014, denied Dial's claim. Dial requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, and that request was denied on July 14, 2015. As a result, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) as of July 14, 2015.

         The case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Rule 73.1 of the Local Rules for the United States District Court Middle District of Alabama, the parties have consented for the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings in this case and to enter a final judgment. Based on the court's review of the record, the parties' briefs, and the relevant case law, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED, as set forth below.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court reviews a social security case to determine whether the Commissioner's decision “is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, ” but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the court must affirm the Commissioner's decision “if it is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied.” Kelly v. Apfel, 185 F.3d 1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Jones ex rel. T.J.J. v. Astrue, 2011 WL 1706465, at *1 (M.D. Ala. May 5, 2011) (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). “If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the court would have reached a contrary result as a finder of fact, and even if the court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision.” Jones, 2011 WL 1706465 at *2 (citing Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991)). The court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991); Jones, 2011 WL 1706465 at *2 (citing Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law are valid. Id.

         II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the “inability to 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); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medially acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). Dial bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and he is responsible for producing evidence to support his claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (2012). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) Is the claimant presently unemployed?
(2) Is the claimant's impairment severe?
(3) Does the claimant'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 claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work within ...

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