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Garoutte v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

February 15, 2018

KRISTINA GAROUTTE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Kristina Garoutte (“Garoutte”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Garoutte seeks a review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who denied her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). Garoutte filed her application on February 13, 2014. After that, Garoutte exhausted the administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. This case is now ripe for judicial review under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Garoutte appeals the ALJ's decision on eight different grounds. After reviewing the entire record and the arguments set forth, this Court REVERSES and REMANDS the decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Relevant Background

         Garoutte was 36 years old when she filed her application. (Tr. 25). Her past relevant work includes being a merchandise displayer. (Id.). The alleged onset date is January 1, 2013. (Id. at 13). On February 13, 2014, Garoutte filed an application for SSI. (Id.). The Social Security Administration denied that application on April 10, 2014. (Id.). On March 19, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Claire R. Strong held a video hearing. (Id.). The ALJ issued her decision on May 29, 2015, which was unfavorable to Garoutte. (Id. at 27). The ALJ determined that Garoutte suffers from numerous severe impairments but found that her impairments did not meet the severity of the ones included in the Code of Federal Regulations. (Id. at 15, 17). The ALJ also determined that Garoutte could still perform substantial gainful activity. (Id. at 25-26). Garoutte requested the Appeals Council review her claim. (Id. at 1-4). They refused. (Id.).

         Garoutte filed her Complaint in the Northern District of Alabama on December 23, 2016. (Doc. 1). She filed her brief in support of her Complaint on July 6, 2017. (Doc. 12). The Commissioner responded on September 6, 2017. (Doc. 16). Additionally, the parties have addressed Garoutte's Notice of Supplemental Authority. (Docs. 17, 18).

         III. Standards

         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). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court.

         The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         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.[1] 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 ...

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