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Ellis v. Berryhill

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

November 14, 2017

ELAINE DIANNE ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Elaine Dianne Ellis brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. Upon consideration of the parties' briefs (Docs. 14, 26[1]) and those portions of the administrative record (Doc. 12) (hereinafter cited as “(R. [page number(s) in lower-right corner of transcript])”) relevant to the issues raised, and with the benefit of oral argument held September 13, 2017, the Court finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED under sentence four of § 405(g).[2]

         I. Background

         On January 9, 2014, Ellis filed an application for SSI with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). On January 13, 2014, she filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. Both applications alleged disability beginning July 29, 2013.[3]After her applications were initially denied, Ellis requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and a hearing was held on December 15, 2014. On April 27, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Ellis's applications, finding her “not disabled” under the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to benefits. (See R. 33 - 50).

         The Commissioner's decision on Ellis's applications became final when the Appeals Council for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied Ellis's request for review of the ALJ's decision on November 15, 2016. (R. 1 - 6). On January 18, 2017, Ellis filed this action under §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See (Doc. 1); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing [for SSI benefits] shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow.”); Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007) (“The settled law of this Circuit is that a court may review, under sentence four of section 405(g), a denial of review by the Appeals Council.”).

         II. Standards 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, 496 F.3d at 1260 (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.”).[4] “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).[5]

         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 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 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237-39).[6]

         “These regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211 (citing Spencer v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090, 1093 (11th Cir. 1985)). “In determining whether the claimant has satisfied this initial burden, the examiner must consider four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) the diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history.” Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (citing Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). “These factors must be considered both singly and in combination. Presence or absence of a single factor is not, in itself, conclusive.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240 (citations omitted).

         If, in Steps One through Four of the five-step evaluation, a claimant proves that he or she has a qualifying disability and cannot do his or her past relevant work, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden, at Step Five, to prove that the claimant is capable-given his or her age, education, and work history-of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). Finally, although the “claimant bears the burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair record.” Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987). See also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” (citations omitted)). “This is an onerous task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts. In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Where the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review of that decision, the Court “review[s] the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278. “[W]hen the [Appeals Council] has denied review, [the Court] will look only to the evidence actually presented to the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998). “[B]ut when a claimant properly presents new evidence to the ...


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