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Baker v. Berryhill

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

February 20, 2018

PAULA BAKER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge

          I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Paula Baker (“Baker”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Baker seeks a review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who denied her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Baker filed her application on September 26, 2013. After that, Baker 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).

         After reviewing the entire record and the arguments set forth, this Court REVERSES and REMANDS the decision of the Commissioner.

          II. Relevant Background

          Baker was 52 years old at the time the ALJ issued his decision. (Tr. 21). She is high school educated, and she can “communicate in English”. (Id.). Her past relevant work includes being a special education bus driver. (Id.). The alleged onset date is September 11, 2013. (Id. at 11). On September 26, 2013, “[she] filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits.” (Id.). The Social Security Administration denied that application on November 7, 2013. (Id.). On April 20, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Jerome L. Munford held a hearing in Jasper, Alabama. (Id.). The ALJ issued his decision on June 26, 2015, which was unfavorable to Baker. (Id. at 22). The ALJ determined that Baker 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 13-16). The ALJ also determined that Baker could still perform substantial gainful activity. (Id. at 21-22). Baker requested the Appeals Council review her claim. (Id. at 1-4). They refused. (Id.).

         Baker filed her Complaint in the Northern District of Alabama on December 7, 2016. (Doc. 1). She filed her brief in support of her Complaint on July 27, 2017. (Doc. 12). The Commissioner responded on August 23, 2017. (Doc. 16).

         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.[2] 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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