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Watkins v. Berryhill

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

June 29, 2017

GARY WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Gary Watkins (“Mr. Watkins”) 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”), [1] who denied his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[2], [3] Mr. Watkins filed an application for DIB on November 26, 2012, and SSI on February 27, 2013. Thereafter, Mr. Watkins pursued and exhausted the administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. Accordingly, this case is now ripe for judicial review pursuant to the provisions of section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[4]

         The sole 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. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). To that end this court “must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Id. Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. The court has carefully reviewed the entire record in this case and is of the opinion that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and that proper legal standards were not applied in reaching that decision. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner must be REVERSED and REMANDED.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Watkins filed a Title II application for DIB on November 26, 2012. (Tr. 29). He filed a Title XVI application for SSI on February 27, 2013. Id. In both applications, Mr. Watkins alleged disability beginning October 15, 2011 (Tr. 29), which was subsequently amended to February 12, 2013. (Tr. 167). The applications were denied administratively on May 16, 2013, and Mr. Watkins timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 29). That hearing was held on September 12, 2014, and the ALJ denied both claims. Id. Mr. Watkins filed a complaint on July 5, 2016, which asks this court to review the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1).

         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, 703 F.2d at 1239. 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.[5] 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 a claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, [he] will automatically be found disabled if [he] suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform [his] 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 national economy.

         FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

         After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014. (Tr. 12).
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 12, 2013, the amended alleged onset date. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1517 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.). (Tr. 12).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairment: depression, and history of substance abuse. (20 C.F.R. § 404.152(c) and § 416.920(c)).[6] (Tr. 12).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1525, § 404.1526, ...

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