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Richardson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 29, 2017

TRACEY RICHARDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          JOHN H. ENGLAND, III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tracey Richardson (“Richardson”) 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 request for reconsideration of the cessation of her supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits.[2] Richardson 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 AFFIRMED.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Richardson protectively filed for SSI on February 19, 2003, alleging disability on that date. (Tr. 72). On May 7, 2004, the Commissioner found Richardson disabled and issued a fully favorable decision. (Tr. 69-71). On November 29, 2011, the Commissioner determined Richardson's disability had ceased as of November 1, 2011. (Tr. 87). On January 11, 2012, Richardson requested the agency reconsider the termination of her benefits, and, after review, the agency denied Richardson's claim on March 27, 2013. (Tr. 107). Richardson requested a hearing, where she appeared on February 27, 2014. (Tr. 36-65). After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Richardson's claim on November 20, 2014. (Tr. 20-31). Richardson sought review by the Appeals Council, but it declined her request on May 16, 2016. (Tr. 1-7). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On July 11, 2016, Richardson initiated this action. (See doc. 1). At the date on which Richardson's disability allegedly ceased, she was thirty-three years old with a ninth-grade education and no past relevant work. (Tr. 30, 50). She alleges she is unable to work due to mental retardation. (Tr. 93).

         II. Standard of Review[3]

         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 supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence may even exist contrary to the findings of the ALJ, and [the reviewing court] may have taken a different view of it as a factfinder. Yet, if there is substantially supportive evidence, the findings cannot be overturned.” Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). However, the Court 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 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 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.

         Once disability has previously been established, the Regulations provide a seven-step process for determining whether a claimant continues to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(i-vii). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) Whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the claimant does, the claimant's disability continues. If not, the evaluation proceeds to step two.
(2) Whether the claimant has experienced medical improvement. If the claimant has, the evaluation proceeds to step three; if not, the evaluation proceeds to step four.
(3) Whether the claimant's medical improvement is related to her ability to work. If it is, the evaluation proceeds to step five; if not, the evaluation proceeds to step four.
(4) Whether an exception under 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.994(b)(3)-(4) applies. If no exception applies, the claimant's disability continues. If an exception in (b)(3) applies, the evaluation proceeds to step five. If an exception in (b)(4) applies, the claimant is not disabled.
(5) Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. If the claimant does, the evaluation proceeds to step six; if not, the claimant is not disabled.
(6) Whether the claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work. If the claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, the evaluation proceeds to step seven; if not, the claimant is not disabled.
(7) Whether the claimant is unable to perform any other work within the national economy. If the claimant is unable to do so, the claimant is disabled; if not, the claimant is no longer disabled.

Allen v. Astrue, No. 3:11-CV-04322-KOB, 2013 WL 5519646, at *2 (N.D. Ala. Sept. 30, 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)). Medical improvement is defined as:

any decrease in the medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that [he] w[as] disabled or continued to be disabled. A determination that there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based on changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings associated with [the claimant's] impairments.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b). To terminate benefits, the Commissioner may not focus only on current evidence of disability, but must also “evaluate the medical evidence upon which [the claimant] was originally found to be disabled.” Solomon v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 532 F.App'x 837, 839 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Vaughn v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 1040, 1043 (11th Cir.1984) (per curiam)). To that end, “[a] comparison of the original medical evidence and the new medical evidence is necessary to make a finding of improvement.” McAulay v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1500, 1500 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam) (citation omitted). The Commissioner's decision is based on the weight of the evidence, with “no initial inference as to the presence or absence of disability being drawn from the fact that [the claimant has] previously been determined to be disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(6).

         IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge

         After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation process, the ...


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