United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
DAVID L. SPIVEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
David L. Spivey filed this action on August 19, 2016, seeking
judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security (the
“Commissioner”) terminating his disability
benefits. Doc. 1. Spivey was previously found disabled as of
June 27, 2003 due to a seizure disorder and awarded benefits.
However, during a mandatory periodic review, the Commissioner
determined that Spivey's condition had improved such that
he was no longer disabled as of June 1, 2013. Spivey
requested reconsideration, but the determination was upheld
after a hearing by a state-agency disability hearing officer.
Spivey then requested review and a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing
was held on October 17, 2014. Following that hearing, the ALJ
issued a written decision denying Spivey's claims and
upholding the termination of his benefits. The Appeals
Council rejected Spivey's subsequent request for review,
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
briefing complete, this case is now ripe for review pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the
entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States
Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 73
of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and Rule 73.1 of the
Local Rules for the United States District Court for the
Middle District of Alabama. Docs. 9 & 10. Based upon a
review of the evidentiary record, the parties' briefs,
and the relevant authority, the court finds that the
Commissioner's decision is due to be REVERSED and
REMANDED, as set forth below.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
court's review of the Commissioner's decision
“is narrowly circumscribed.” Richardson v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2017 WL 4366730, at *1 (N.D.
Ala. Sept. 29, 2017). Its function “is to determine
whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by
substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were
applied.” Id. (citing Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v.
Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002)). To
perform this review, the 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); see also Johnson v.
Astrue, 2009 WL 1955305, at *3 (M.D. Ala. July 6, 2009)
(citing Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179 (11th Cir.
1986)) (“A reviewing court may not look only to those
parts of the record which support the decision of the ALJ,
but instead must view the record in its entirety and take
account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied
on by the ALJ.”).
evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a
preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable
person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Perales, 402 U.S. at 401. Even if
the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's
findings, the court “must affirm if the decision
reached is supported by substantial evidence.”
Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155,
1158 (11th Cir. 2004). “However, the Court 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.” Richardson, 2017 WL 4366730, at *2.
“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 the proper
legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the
ALJ's decision.” Id. (citing Cornelius
v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
continued receipt of social security benefits is subject to
mandatory periodic review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a)
(“There is a statutory requirement that, if you are
entitled to disability benefits, your continued entitlement
to such benefits must be reviewed periodically.”). A
claimant's disability benefits may be terminated based
upon, among other things, “a finding that there has
been medical improvement in the claimant's impairment or
combination of impairments related to the claimant's ability
to work and the claimant is now able to engage in substantial
gainful activity.” Pitre v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 2014 WL 3417688, at *2 (M.D. Fla. July 14, 2014)
(citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(f)(1)).
this determination, the Commissioner employs a multi-step
sequential evaluation process:
1. Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity?
2. If not, does the claimant have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one
of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, App. 1 [the Listing of Impairments]?
3. If not, has there been medical improvement with respect to
the claimant's impairment(s)?
4. If there has been medical improvement, is such improvement
related to the claimant's ability to work?
5. If there has been no medical improvement, or if any such
improvement is unrelated to the ability to do work, do any of
the exceptions of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(d) and (e)
6. If medical improvement is related to the claimant's
ability to work, or if one of the first group
“exceptions” to medical improvement
(i.e., pertaining to a lack of medical improvement
but success in or the availability of vocational therapy or
technology) applies, are the claimant's impairments, or
combination of impairments, severe?
7. If an impairment is severe, can the claimant perform past
8. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work,
considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past
work experience, can the claimant perform other work existing
in significant numbers in the national economy?
20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f); see also Pitre, 2014
WL 3417688, at *3; Johnson, 2009 WL 1955305, at
perform steps three through six, the ALJ must first determine
whether the claimant has experienced medical
improvement.” Johnson, 2009 WL 1955305, at *2
(internal quotation marks omitted). Medical improvement is
defined as “any decrease in the medical severity of
[the claimant's] impairment(s) which was present at the
time of the most recent favorable medical decision that [the
claimant was] disabled or continued to be disabled.” 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1). “A determination that
there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based
on improvements in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory
findings associated with [the claimant's]
impairment(s).” Id. Medical improvement
related to the claimant's ability to work is defined as
medical improvement coupled with “an increase in [the
claimant's] functional capacity to do basic work
activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(3)
(alteration to original). Medical improvement that is not