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Brown v. Berryhill

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

September 18, 2017

JUDY P. BROWN Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION

          TERRY F. MOORER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Following administrative denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, Judy P. Brown ("Brown" or "Plaintiff) received a requested hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") who rendered an unfavorable decision. When the Appeals Council rejected review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). See Chester v. Bowen, 792F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Judicial review proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and for reasons herein explained, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision denying supplemental security income benefits.

         I. Nature of the Case

         Brown seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration's decision denying her application for supplemental security income benefits. United States district courts may conduct limited review of such decisions to determine whether they comply with applicable law and are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405 (2006). The court may affirm, reverse and remand with instructions, or reverse and render a judgment. Id.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is narrowly circumscribed. In review of a social security case, the court will use the substantial evidence standard to affirm the Commissioner's decision if substantial evidence exists to support the decision. Mitchell v. Commissioner, 111 F.3d 780, 781 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011)). The court is limited in its review, therefore the court is "preclude[d] [from] deciding the facts anew, making credibility determinations, or re-weighing the evidence." Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1986)). This court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive "if it is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied." Kelley v. Apfel, 185 F.3d 1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1999); see also Kosloff v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 581 Fed.Appx. 811, 811 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Kelley); Moreno v. Astrue, 366 Fed.Appx. 23, 26-27 (11th Cir. 2010) ("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.") (Citation omitted).

         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. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc Sec, 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)); Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). 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 finder of fact, and even if the court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); see also Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) ("even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, we must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.") (Citation omitted). The district court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote v. Chafer, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986)).

         The district court will reverse a Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton v. Department of Health and Human Services, 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (internal citations omitted). There is no presumption that the Secretary's conclusions of law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         The Social Security Act's general disability insurance benefits program ("DIB") provides income to individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature retirement, provided they are both insured and disabled, regardless of indigence.[2] See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Social Security Act's Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") is a separate and distinct program. SSI is a general public assistance measure providing an additional resource to the aged, blind, and disabled to assure that their income does not fall below the poverty line.[3] Eligibility for SSI is based upon proof of indigence and disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a), 1382c(a)(3). However, despite the fact they are separate programs, the law and regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are identical; therefore, claims for DIB and SSI are treated identically for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n. 1 (11th Cir. 1986). Applicants under DIB and SSI must provide "disability" within the meaning of the Social Security Act which defines disability in virtually identical language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A "physical or mental impairment" is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner utilizes a five-step, burden-shifting analysis to determine when claimants are disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520;[4] Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); O'Neal v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 614 Fed.Appx. 456 (11th Cir. June 10, 2015). The ALJ determines:

(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 exceeds one of the impairments in the listings;[5]
(4) Whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and
(5) Whether the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). When a claimant is found disabled - or not - at an early step, the remaining steps are not considered. McDanielv. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). This procedure is a fair and just way for determining disability applications in conformity with the Social Security Act. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2297, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987) (citing Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 461, 103 S.Ct. 1952, 1954, 76 L.Ed.2d 66 (1983)) (The use of the sequential evaluation process "contribute[s] to the uniformity and efficiency of disability determinations").

         The burden of proof rests on the claimant through Step 4. See Ostborg v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec,610 Fed.Appx. 907, 915 (11th Cir. 2015); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237-39. Aprimafacie case of qualifying disability exists when a claimant carries the Step 1 through Step 4 burden. Only at the fifth step does the burden shift to the Commissioner, who must then ...


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