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Hargrove v. Berryhill

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

October 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Deborah C. Hargrove commenced this action on December 10, 2015, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits. See Doc. 1; Doc. 13; Doc. 14. Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 30, 2013, and she alleged disability onset as of August 31, 2013 due to a brain tumor (removed), difficulty concentrating, and emotional and anger impairments. Doc. 15-2 at 21; Doc. 15-5 at 2; Doc. 15-6 at 6. On May 26, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Walter V. Lassiter, Jr. (the “ALJ”) issued an adverse decision.[3] See Doc. 15-2 at 21-35. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Id. at 2-3.

         In the instant appeal, the plaintiff requests that the court award the plaintiff benefits or, alternatively, remand this cause to the Commissioner under sentence four of § 405(g). See Doc. 13 at 15. This case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Doc. 7, 8. For the reasons stated herein, and based upon its review of the record, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be remanded.


         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. A reviewing court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the [Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words, this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner's findings of fact de novo, even where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.

         While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence, 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. 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 a 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.


         On appeal, the plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because his RFC “was not rooted in the medical record, ” he misclassified the plaintiff's mental impairments as non-severe, and plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work. See Doc. 13 at 7-17. The plaintiff also maintains that the ALJ improperly rejected the plaintiff's subjective testimony regarding the intensity and extent of her mental impairments, that the ALJ's decision misstates the record and is not based on substantial evidence, and that the ALJ impermissibly conducted an adversarial proceeding. [4]The court holds that the ALJ s classification of the plaintiff's mental impairments was not based on substantial evidence, and the ALJ's credibility determination was not consistent with correct legal standards and is not based on substantial evidence. For these reasons, this cause is due to be remanded for additional proceedings. The court does not reach the merits of the plaintiffs remaining arguments.

         I. Background

         The plaintiff was gainfully employed from 1971 until the end of December 2013 -that is, approximately 42 years. Doc. 15-5 at 4-5. It is undisputed that, in late August 2013, the plaintiff fell and cut her head when she was tailgating and drinking a beer. Doc. 15-2 at 24. The plaintiffs husband took her to an emergency room. While she was there, the hospital ordered imaging tests of plaintiff s brain, and discovered that the plaintiff had a large brain tumor. See R. 239-55; 422-32. The plaintiff was transferred first from a hospital in Troy, Alabama, to Baptist Medical Center South in Montgomery, Alabama, for a neurological consultation and evaluation. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff was sent to UAB Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama, where she underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor in early September 2013. The plaintiff testified that her surgery took place four days after the fall. See Doc. 15-2 at 51.

         After the surgery, the plaintiff experienced paralysis on her left side. See R. 286. For the remainder of 2013, plaintiff underwent rehabilitative therapy, and she regained significant use of her left side, but with ongoing complications. See R. 312-402. The plaintiff's neurologist prohibited her from driving after ...

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