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Hill v. Berryhill

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

August 3, 2017



          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Cherri Annette Hill (“Ms. Hill”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), [1] who denied her Title II application for Widow's Insurance Benefits and her Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[2] Ms. Hill timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. This case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[3]


         Ms. Hill was 51 years old at the time of her hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 38). She has completed the tenth grade and received her general education degree (“GED”). (Tr. 38-39). Her past relevant work experience includes employment as a cashier and an electronics assembler. Id. Ms. Hill initially claimed she became disabled beginning February 15, 2005. (Tr. 165). Her last period of work ended in 2002. (Tr. 38).

         On June 26, 2009, Ms. Hill protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and Widow's Insurance Benefits. (Tr. 69). She also protectively filed a Title XVI application for SSI on that date. Id. The ALJ reached a decision on July 14, 2011. Id. That decision was appealed and review was denied by the Appeals Council on January 17, 2013. (Tr. 81). Ms. Hill did not appeal from the July 14, 2011, ALJ decision. On April 18, 2013, Ms. Hill protectively filed her second Title II application for a period of disability and Widow's Insurance Benefits. (Tr. 165). She also protectively filed her second Title XVI application for SSI on that date. (Tr. 173). Ms. Hill amended the onset date of her disability to April 1, 2010. (Tr. 13). On May 23, 2013, the Commissioner initially denied these claims. Id. Ms. Hill timely filed a written request for a hearing on June 25, 2013. Id. On August 6, 2014, the ALJ conducted a video hearing. Id. The ALJ presided over the hearing from Franklin, Tennessee while Ms. Hill appeared in Decatur, Alabama. Id. On September 16, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision concluding that Ms. Hill was not disabled and denying her claims. (Tr. 13-27). Ms. Hill timely petitioned the Appeals Council to review the decision on October 8, 2014. (Tr. 8). On February 10, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on Ms. Hill's claims. (Tr. 1-4).

         Ms. Hill filed a Complaint with this court on April 13, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered on July 27, 2016. (Doc. 6). Ms. Hill filed a supporting brief (doc. 8) on September 9, 2016, and the Commissioner responded with an opposing brief (doc. 9) on October 11, 2016. Ms. Hill then followed with a reply (doc. 10) to the Commissioner's brief on October 25, 2016.


         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.

         This court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, 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.[4] 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 national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         To qualify for benefits as a disabled widow under the Regulations of the Social Security Act, the claimant must meet the definition of “disabled, ” and must establish that she is at least 50 years of age and the widow of a wage earner who died fully insured. Sullivan v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 855, 857 (5th Cir. 1974) (citations omitted). The prescribed period of eligibility to receive benefits as a disabled widow under the Social Security Act is seven years from the month of the insured wage earner's death. Id.


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

         1. It was previously found that [Ms. Hill] is the unmarried widow of the deceased-insured worker and has attained the age of 50. [Ms. Hill] met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow's benefits set forth in section 202(e) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 16).

         2. The prescribed period ends on July 31, 2019. Id.

         3. [Ms. Hill] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2010, the amended alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ ...

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