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Spivey v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2018

DAVID L. SPIVEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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”)[1] 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 Commissioner.

         With 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.


         This 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.”).

         “Substantial 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)).


         The 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[2] 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)).

         To make 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) apply[3]?
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 relevant work?
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 *1-2.

         “To 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[4] 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 ...

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