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Hearn v. Berryhill

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

September 30, 2017

CHRISTOPHER HEARN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c), plaintiff Christopher Hearn seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Mr. Hearn's claim for supplemental security income. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter for further proceedings.[1]

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Hearn filed his first application for supplemental security income on December 1, 2008. (Doc. 7-3, p. 22). The Commissioner denied the application on February 25, 2009. (Doc. 7-3, p. 22). Mr. Hearn requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 24, 2011. (Doc. 7-3, p. 22). The Appeals Council declined Mr. Hearn's request for review on September 18, 2012. (Doc. 7-3, p. 22).

         Mr. Hearn appealed the Commissioner's decision to federal district court on November 16, 2012. (Doc. 1 in Case 4:12-cv-03892-AKK).[2] The district court affirmed the Commissioner's decision on September 26, 2014. (Doc. 15 in Case 4:12-cv-03892-AKK; Doc. 16 in Case 4:12-cv-03892-AKK). On November 19, 2014, Mr. Hearn appealed the district court's decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (Doc. 17 in Case 4:12-cv-03892-AKK). On July 31, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision affirming the Commissioner's denial of Mr. Hearn's claim. See Hearn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 619 Fed.Appx. 892 (11th Cir. 2015). In this opinion, the Court refers to proceedings associated with Mr. Hearn's December 1, 2008 application as Hearn I.

         Mr. Hearn protectively filed a second application for supplemental security income on September 26, 2012. (Doc. 7-4, p. 13; Doc. 7-7, p. 2).[3] Mr. Hearn completed his second application on October 1, 2012. (Doc. 7-6, pp. 2-7). The Court will refer to proceedings associated with Mr. Hearn's October 1, 2012 application as Hearn II. In Hearn II, Mr. Hearn alleges that his disability began on September 26, 2012, eight days after the Appeals Council declined review in Hearn I. (Doc. 7-6, p. 2; see Doc. 7-3, p. 22). The Commissioner initially denied Mr. Hearn's second application on November 30, 2012. (Doc. 7-5, p. 2). Mr. Hearn requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Doc. 7-5, p. 9). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 9, 2014. (Doc. 7-3, p. 19). On September 10, 2015, the Appeals Council declined Mr. Hearn's request for review (Doc. 7-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision in Hearn II final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         To determine whether a claimant has established that he is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(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 equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Mr. Hearn has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 26, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 7-3, p. 24). The ALJ determined that Mr. Hearn suffers from the following medically determinable impairments: hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and coronary artery disease. (Doc. 7-3, p. 24). Although Mr. Hearn claimed that he was disabled because of bipolar disorder, seizures, and schizophrenia (Doc. 7-3, p. 25), the ALJ found that there was no finding “from any acceptable source to support [Mr. Hearn's] allegations of bipolar disorder, seizures, or schizophrenia from September 26, 2012, through the date of this decision.” (Doc. 7-3, pp. 26-27). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that those “alleged impairments are not medically determined impairments.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 27).

         Based on a review of the limited medical evidence post-dating September 26, 2012, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Hearn does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (Doc. 7-3, p. 24). Therefore, the ALJ found that Mr. Hearn is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 27-28); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (“You must have a severe impairment. If you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will ...


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