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Garcia v. Berryhill

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

March 31, 2017

ANETRA GARCIA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [2]

          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff commenced this action on June 25, 2015, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for a period of disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1, 12, 15). The plaintiff asserts that she is unable to work due to lower back pain, lumbago, spondylosis, radiculitis, obesity, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, "panic attacks, " and insomnia. (Doc. 16-6 at 6). On February 7, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Angela L. Neal ("ALJ") issued an adverse decision.[3] (Doc. 16-2 at 16-27). After receiving the unfavorable decision, the plaintiff submitted new medical evidence to the Appeals Council, which considered the new evidence and denied the plaintiffs request for review. (Doc. 16-2 at 2-4). Consequently, the ALJ's adverse determination is the Commissioner's final decision (Id.); however, the Appeals Council's written denial of review is part of the final decision and is subject to judicial review. See Ingram v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) ("the denial of a request for review by the Appeals Council is part of the 'final decision' of the Commissioner" and must be considered by a reviewing court).

         This case is ripe for a decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 9, 10). For the reasons stated herein, and based upon its review of the record, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be remanded for additional proceedings because the Commissioner did not employ proper legal standards.

         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). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. It is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id. A reviewing court "may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the [Commissioner]." Dyer v. Barnhart 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (1 lth Cir. 2005). In other words, this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner's findings of fact de novo, even where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.

         While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions 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, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         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 a 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 ...

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