United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
JENNIFER A. QUARLES, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KATHERINE P. NELSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Jennifer A. Quarles 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. 26, 27) and those portions of the
administrative record (Docs. 10, 24) (hereinafter cited as
“(R. [page number(s) in lower-right corner of
transcript])”) relevant to the issues raised, the Court
finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be
AFFIRMED under sentence four of §
February 14, 2013, Quarles filed applications for a period of
disability, DIB, and SSI with the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”), alleging disability
beginning November 1, 2012. Quarles requested a hearing
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with
the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review
after her applications were initially denied; the hearing was
held on July 30, 2014. On November 19, 2014, the ALJ issued
an unfavorable decision on Quarles's applications,
finding her “not disabled” under the Social
Security Act and thus not entitled to benefits. (See
R. 22 - 41).
requested review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals
Council for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,
but on September 13, 2015, the Appeals Council dismissed the
request for review after finding that the request had not
been timely filed and that Quarles had failed to show good
cause to extend the time for filing the request. (R. 1 - 5).
On November 11, 2015, Quarles initiated this action to
challenge the Appeals Council's dismissal. (Doc. 1).
receiving briefing from the parties (see Docs. 11,
12, ) and holding oral argument, the undersigned entered an
order on August 10, 2016, remanding this case to the
Commissioner under sentence six of § 405(g) for
consideration of new and material evidence. (See
Doc. 19). After considering the new evidence, the Appeals
Council issued a decision on March 30, 2017, setting aside
its earlier dismissal of Quarles's request for review and
instead denying Quarles's request for review (R. 638 -
642), making that decision the Commissioner's new final
decision on Quarles's applications.
Commissioner filed this new final decision and a record of
the additional administrative proceeding with the Court on
June 26, 2017. (Doc. 24). The Court then reopened this action
and set a briefing schedule on the new decision.
(See Docs. 23, 25). The parties timely filed their
briefs (Docs. 26, 27), and this action for judicial review of
the Commissioner's March 30, 2017 final decision is now
under submission (see Doc. 31). See 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.”).
Standards of Review
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)).
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).
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.
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.
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)
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
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).
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).
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).
as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council
denied 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). If the
applicant attacks ...