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Hildreth v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 27, 2017

SHIRLEY HILDRETH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          JOHN H. ENGLAND, III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Shirley Hildreth (“Hildreth”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). Hildreth timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this action is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Hildreth filed her application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on March 13, 2012, alleging an initial onset date of April 26, 2011. (Tr. 279, 284). Hildreth was a forty-three-year-old female on December 31, 2013, her date last insured. (“DLI”). (Tr. 76, 103). Hildreth has a GED and past relevant work as a certified nursing assistant. (Tr. 103). The Commissioner initially denied Hildreth's application, (Tr. 196), and Hildreth requested a hearing before an ALJ where she appeared on September 5, 2013. (Tr. 202, 99). After a hearing, the ALJ denied Hildreth's claim on June 27, 2014. (Tr. 73). Hildreth sought review by the Appeals Council, but it declined her request on January 13, 2016. (Tr. 1). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On March 11, 2016, Hildreth initiated this action. (See doc.

         II. Standard of Review[2]

         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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (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 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).

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[3] 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 entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “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 the 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). “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 such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge

         After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ made the following findings:

         At Step One, the ALJ found Hildreth met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013, and that Hildreth had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 26, 2011, the alleged onset date of her disability. (Tr. 78). At Step Two, the ALJ found Hildreth has the following severe impairments: morbid obesity; status post open reduction internal fixation, right hip, due to fracture; status post arthroscopic surgery, right knee; osteoarthritis, upper extremities; history of gout; and major depressive disorder. (Id.). The ALJ noted that Hildreth also suffers from asthma with controlled medications, migraines, hypertension, history of anemia, one event of hypoglycemia, and generalized anxiety; however, the ALJ found these impairments only caused a slight limitation in Hildreth's capacity for work activity. (Id.) At Step Three, the ALJ found Hildreth does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 80).

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Hildreth's residual functioning capacity (“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. ...


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