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Cunigan v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2018

HOPE LEIGH CUNIGAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER[2]

          Susan Russ Walker, United States Magistrate Judge

         This is the second time that plaintiff Hope Leigh Cunigan has appealed to this court from a final adverse decision by the Commissioner on the plaintiff's October 9, 2007 Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. See Cunigan v. Astrue, No. 2:11-cv-00180-SRW, 2012 WL 4208940, at *1 (M.D. Ala. Sept. 20, 2012) (remanding to the Commissioner for additional proceedings); R. 9. Plaintiff commenced this action on June 27, 2016, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner denying the October 9, 2007 application. See Doc. 1; Doc. 14. Plaintiff alleged “disability beginning December 31, 2004 due to 3 bulging discs and arthritis in neck, back pain, carpal tunnel in right hand/wrist.” Cunigan, 2012 WL 4208940, at *1 (internal marks and citations omitted). On July 6, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Paul Whitson Johnson (“the ALJ”) issued an adverse decision after holding a hearing on the plaintiff's application.[3] See R. 659-667. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See R. at 648-55.

         In the instant appeal, the plaintiff asks the court to reverse the Commissioner's adverse decision and award benefits or, in the alternative, to remand this cause to the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Doc. 14 at 10. This case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Doc. 11; Doc. 12. For the reasons stated herein, and based upon its review of the record, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A reviewing court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the [Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words, this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner's findings of fact de novo, even where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.

         While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions 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, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         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. 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 the Commissioner;
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to a formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. ...


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