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Todd v. Berryhill

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

December 22, 2017

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



         Social Security Claimant/Plaintiff Pamela Carniece Todd 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 (“PoD”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 16 (“In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including the trial, order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”)).

         Upon consideration of the briefs of the parties, (Docs. 13 & 14), the administrative record, (Docs. 11), (hereinafter cited as “(R. [page number(s) in lower-right corner of transcript])”), and the arguments presented during the hearing held on February 22, 2017, it is determined that the Commissioner's decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this decision.[2]

         I. Background

         Todd was born on September 11, 1975, (R. 211 [SSA Ex. B1E]). Todd completed four (4) or more years of college. (R. 225 [SSA Ex. B3E]). Todd was employed as a clerk and a nutritionist. (R. 215 [SSA Ex. B2E]).

         Todd filed applications for PoD and DIB with the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), [3] on August 8, 2013. (R. 20). Todd, also, filed an application for SSI on August 8, 2013.[4] (R. 20). In Todd's applications, she alleged disability beginning on July 19, 2013, and, later, amended her alleged onset date to April 1, 2012.[5] (R. 20). After Todd's claim was denied, she requested a hearing, which was held via videoconference before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for the SSA on September 9, 2014. (R. 20). On February 17, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Todd's claims, finding her “not disabled” under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (R. 17-35).

         Todd requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council for the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. (R. 20). The Appeals Council denied Todd's request for review on June 2, 2016, which made the ALJ's the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-7). On June 29, 2016, Todd filed this action pursuant to § 405(g)[6] and § 1383(c)(3)[7] to review the final decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1, at 1-2).

         II. 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) (citations and internal quotations omitted). The Court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citations omitted). “Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [the Court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986); MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986); and Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)). “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [the Court does] not ‘act as automatons.'” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citing Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 411 (5th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455405(g). U.S. 912, 102 S.Ct. 1263, 71 L.Ed.2d 452 (1982)). The Court “must scrutinize the record as a whole, [Ware, 651 F.2d at 411]; Lewis v. Weinberger, 515 F.2d 584, 586-87 (5th Cir. 1975), to determine if the decision reached is reasonable, Todd v. Harris, 602 F.2d 1233, 1236 (5th Cir. 1979), and supported by substantial evidence, Scharlow v. Schweiker, 655 F.2d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 1981).” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239.

         “In contrast to the deferential review accorded to the [Commissioner's] findings of fact, the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law, including applicable review standards are not presumed valid.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053; Smith v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 1284, 1285 (11th Cir. 1983), Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982); Smith v. Schweiker, 646 F.2d 1075, 1076 (5th Cir. Unit A June 1981). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed mandates reversal.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 619, 622 (11th Cir. 1986); Bowel v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635-36 (11th Cir. 1984); Smith, 707 F.2d at 1285; Wiggins, 679 F.2d at 1389; Ambers v. Heckler, 736 F.2d 1467, 1470 (11th Cir. 1984)).

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 v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, at 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         III. Claims on Judicial Review

         1. “[T]he ALJ erred by failing to fulfill his duty to develop the record when he chose not to re-order a rheumatologic evaluation.” (Doc. 13, at 3).

         2. “[T]he ALJ's RFC lacks the support of substantial evidence as it fails to include any non-exertional limitations imposed by her pain.” (Doc. 16, at 3).

         IV. ...

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