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Bice v. Berryhill

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

October 25, 2017

DONNA I. BICE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Social Security Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) Plaintiff Donna I. Bice (“Bice” or “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of an adverse social security ruling denying disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income Program. (Docs. 1, 9). With the consent of the parties, the Court has designated the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 16-17). The parties requested that oral argument be waived, and their request was granted. (Docs. 19-20). After considering the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, the Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner due to be AFFIRMED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 7, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits beginning September 30, 2003. (Docs. 9 at 1, 14 at 1). Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of September 30, 2003. (Doc. 9 at 6 (Fact Sheet)). Her application was initially denied on April 22, 2014, after which she requested a hearing. (Doc. 14 at 1). On November 15, 2015, a hearing was held hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on December 22, 2015. (Doc. 8 at 17-29).

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was 52 years old, had graduated from high school, and had previous employment experience as a customer service representative. (Doc. 9). Plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to major depressive disorder (“MDD”) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”). (Docs. 8 at 25; 9 at 3). On December 22, 2015, an ALJ denied benefits after determining that “through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore [Plaintiff] did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments (20 CFR 404.1451 et seq.)”. (Doc. 8 at 25). On December 26, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's hearing decision. (Doc. 8 at 4-9).

         Plaintiff's brief summarizes her claim on appeal as follows, “The Administrative Law Judge reversibly erred under Social Security Ruling 83-20 and HALLEX I-2-6-70(A) by failing to call on the services of a medical expert to determine the onset of Plaintiff's impairments.” (Doc. 9 at 1). Plaintiff also raised a claim that the ALJ erred when she determined Plaintiff's impairment was not severe. (Doc. 9 at 3). Defendant has responded to-and denies-these claims. (Doc. 14, generally).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘ “supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” ‘ “ Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). However, the Court “ ‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].' “ Id. (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983))). “‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s factual findings, [the Court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.' “ Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [The Court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light of all the relevant facts.”). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must…tak[e] into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).

         However, the “substantial evidence” “standard of review applies only to findings of fact. No similar presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner]'s conclusions of law, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (quotation omitted). Accord, e.g., Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982) (“Our standard of review for appeals from the administrative denials of Social Security benefits dictates that ‘(t)he findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive ....' 42 U.S.C.A. s 405(g) … As is plain from the statutory language, this deferential standard of review is applicable only to findings of fact made by the Secretary, and it is well established that no similar presumption of validity attaches to the Secretary's conclusions of law, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” (some quotation marks omitted)). This Court “conduct[s] ‘an exacting examination' of these factors.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). “‘The [Commissioner]'s 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.'” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)). Accord Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).

         In sum, courts “review the Commissioner's factual findings with deference and the Commissioner's legal conclusions with close scrutiny.” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). See also Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (“In Social Security appeals, we review de novo the legal principles upon which the Commissioner's decision is based. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, we review the resulting decision only to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004).”).

Eligibility for DIB and SSI requires that the claimant be disabled. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E), 1382(a)(1)-(2). A claimant is disabled if she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment ... 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).

Thornton v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 597 F. App'x 604, 609 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (unpublished).[2]

The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step, sequential evaluation process used to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (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 ...

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