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Burton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 10, 2017

MARY DENISE BURTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Mary Denise Burton brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. With the consent of the parties, 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), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 17, 18).

         Upon consideration of the parties' briefs (Docs. 19, 20, 23) and those portions of the administrative record (Doc. 16) (hereinafter cited as “(R. [page number(s) in lower-right corner of transcript])”) relevant to the issues raised, [1] the Court finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED under sentence four of § 405(g).

         I. Background

         On December 12, 2012, Burton filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), alleging disability beginning December 1, 2008.[2] After her applications were initially denied, Burton requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and a hearing was held on September 23, 2014. On October 16, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Burton's applications, finding her “not disabled” under the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to benefits. (See R. 20 - 38). The Commissioner's decision on Burton's applications became final when the Appeals Council for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied Burton's request for review of the ALJ's decision on March 8, 2016. (R. 1 - 5). On May 12, 2016, Burton filed this action under §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See (Doc. 1); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing [for SSI benefits] shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow.”); Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007) (“The settled law of this Circuit is that a court may review, under sentence four of section 405(g), a denial of review by the Appeals Council.”).

         II. Standards 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].' ” Id. (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, [the Court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.' ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (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). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light of all the relevant facts.”). “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).

         However, the “substantial evidence” “standard of review applies only to findings of fact. No similar presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner]'s conclusions of law, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (quotation omitted). Accord, e.g., Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982) (“Our standard of review for appeals from the administrative denials of Social Security benefits dictates that ‘(t)he findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive ....' 42 U.S.C.A. s 405(g) … As is plain from the statutory language, this deferential standard of review is applicable only to findings of fact made by the Secretary, and it is well established that no similar presumption of validity attaches to the Secretary's conclusions of law, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” (some quotation marks omitted)). This Court “conduct[s] ‘an exacting examination' of these factors.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). “‘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)). Accord Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).

         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).”).

Eligibility for DIB and SSI requires that the claimant be disabled. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E), 1382(a)(1)-(2). A claimant is disabled if she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment ... 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A).

Thornton v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 597 F. App'x 604, 609 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (unpublished).[3]

The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step, sequential evaluation process used to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237-39).[4]

         “These regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211 (citing Spencer v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090, 1093 (11th Cir. 1985)). “In determining whether the claimant has satisfied this initial burden, the examiner must consider four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) the diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history.” Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (citing Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). “These factors must be considered both singly and in combination. Presence or absence of a single factor is not, in itself, conclusive.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240 (citations omitted).

         If, in Steps One through Four of the five-step evaluation, a claimant proves that he or she has a qualifying disability and cannot do his or her past relevant work, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden, at Step Five, to prove that the claimant is capable-given his or her age, education, and work history-of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). Finally, although the “claimant bears the burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair record.” Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987). See also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” (citations omitted)). “This is an onerous task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts. In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Where, as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied review of that decision, the Court “review[s] the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278. “[W]hen the [Appeals Council] has denied review, [the Court] will look only to the evidence actually presented to the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998). If the applicant attacks only the ALJ's decision, the Court may not consider evidence that was presented to the Appeals Council but not to the ALJ. See Id. at 1324.

         III. Analysis

         At Step One, the ALJ determined that Burton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date, December 1, 2008. (R. 25). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Burton had the following severe impairments: history of multifocal choroiditis, peripapillary choroidal neovascularization, and status-post epimacular proliferation removal, resulting in chronic low vision left eye; status post deep vein thrombosis left lower extremity; mild degenerative disc disease lumbar spine; neuropathy; and obesity. (R. 25 - 27). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Burton did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of one of the specified impairments in the relevant Listing of Impairments. (R. 27).

         At Step Four,

the ALJ must assess: (1) the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (2) the claimant's ability to return to her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). As for the claimant's RFC, the regulations define RFC as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). Moreover, the ALJ will “assess and make a finding about [the claimant's] residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence” in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Furthermore, the RFC determination is used both to determine whether the claimant: (1) can return to her past relevant work under the fourth step; and (2) can adjust to other work under the fifth step…20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
If the claimant can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (f). If the claimant cannot return to her past relevant work, the ALJ moves on to step five.
In determining whether [a claimant] can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC using all relevant medical and other evidence in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). That is, the ALJ must determine if the claimant is limited to a particular work level. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567. Once the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines that the claimant cannot return to her prior relevant work, the ALJ moves on to the fifth, and final, step.

Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238-39 (footnote omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Burton had the RFC “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967b[5] ] except with the following limitations: lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; occasionally use both arms for pushing/pulling; sit/stand every 45 minutes; occasionally stoop, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never climb ladder, ropes or scaffolds; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, wetness, humidity, vibrations, noise, fumes, odors, dust, and gases; avoid all exposure to hazardous, unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, and uneven surfaces; and would have 1-2 unplanned absences per month. [Burton] would have the following non-exertional limitations: no more than simple, short instructions and simple work-related decisions with few work place changes (unskilled and low stress), no work at fixed production rate, and unable to work in close proximity to others - easily distracted (concentrate).” (R. 27 - 36).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Burton was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. 36). At Step Five, the ALJ, after taking testimony from a vocational expert, found that there exist significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that Burton can perform given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. (R. 36 - 37). Thus, the ALJ found that Burton was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 37 - 38).

         Burton argues that the ALJ reversibly erred in failing to fully account for the medial opinion of consultative examining optometrist Dr. Craig McNamara. The ALJ ...


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