United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KATHERINE P. NELSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Beverly Jones (“Jones”) brought this action under
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final
decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security
(“the Commissioner”) denying her application for
a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. With the consent
of the parties, the Court has designated the undersigned
Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the
entry of judgment in this civil action, in accordance with 28
U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and
S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 25-26). Upon
consideration of the parties' briefs (Docs. 18, 19) and
those portions of the administrative record (Doc. 12)
(hereinafter cited as “(Tr. [page number(s) in
lower-right corner of transcript])”) relevant to the
issues raised, and with the benefit of oral argument held
telephonically March 28, 2018, the Court finds that the
Commissioner's final decision is due to be
AFFIRMED under sentence four of §
29, 2012, Jones filed an application for DIB. After a hearing
and oral argument, the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Jones
appealed the ALJ's decision and on May 12, 2015, the
Appeals Council for the Office of Disability Adjudication and
Review (“Appeals Council”) remanded the matter to
ALJ. On August 31, 2015, the ALJ held a second hearing. On
January 25, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision
which Jones appealed. On February 3, 2017, the
Commissioner's decision on Jones' application became
final when the Appeals Council denied Jones's request for
review of the ALJ's decision. Jones subsequently filed
this action under § 405(g) for judicial review of the
Commissioner's final decision. (See Doc. 1); 42
U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of
the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing [for SSI
benefits] shall be subject to judicial review as provided in
section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the
Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of
this title.”); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any
individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party,
irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a
review of such decision by a civil action commenced within
sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such
decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of
Social Security may allow.”); Ingram v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir.
2007) (“The settled law of this Circuit is that a court
may review, under sentence four of section 405(g), a denial
of review by the Appeals Council.”).
Standards of Review
Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether
the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial
evidence and based on proper legal standards. Substantial
evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011)(internal
citations and quotations omitted). However, the Court may not
decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute
our judgment for that of the [Commissioner]. Id.
(internal citations and quotations omitted).
“‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the
[Commissioner]'s factual findings, [the Court] must
affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial
evidence.'” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260
(quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
(11th Cir. 1990)).
within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act
as automatons. [The Court] must scrutinize the record as a
whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and
supported by substantial evidence[.]”
Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and
quotation omitted). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748
F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are
neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp
the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our
function is to ensure that the decision was based on a
reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was
carefully considered in light of all the relevant
facts.”). “In determining whether substantial
evidence exists, [a court] must…tak[e] into account
evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the
[Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v.
Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).
the “substantial evidence” “standard of
review applies only to findings of fact. No. similar
presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner]'s
conclusions of law, including determination of the proper
standards to be applied in reviewing claims.”
MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir.
1986) (quotation omitted). Accord, e.g., Wiggins
v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982)
(“Our standard of review for appeals from the
administrative denials of Social Security benefits dictates
that ‘(t)he findings of the Secretary as to any fact,
if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive
....' 42 U.S.C.A. Â§ 405(g) … As is plain from the
statutory language, this deferential standard of review is
applicable only to findings of fact made by the Secretary,
and it is well established that no similar presumption of
validity attaches to the Secretary's conclusions of law,
including determination of the proper standards to be applied
in reviewing claims.” (some quotation marks omitted)).
This Court “conduct[s] ‘an exacting
examination' of these factors.” Miles v.
Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam)
(quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
(11th Cir. 1990)). “‘The [Commissioner]'s
failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing
court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the
proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates
reversal.'” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260
(quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143,
1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)). Accord Keeton v.
Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d
1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).
courts “review the Commissioner's factual findings
with deference and the Commissioner's legal conclusions
with close scrutiny.” Doughty v. Apfel, 245
F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). See also Moore v.
Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per
curiam) (“In Social Security appeals, we review de
novo the legal principles upon which the
Commissioner's decision is based. Chester v.
Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, we
review the resulting decision only to determine whether it is
supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir.
Eligibility for DIB…requires that the claimant be
disabled. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E)…A
claimant is disabled if she is unable “to engage in any
substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment ... which has
lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of
not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§
Thornton v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 597
Fed.Appx. 604, 609 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam)
The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step,
sequential evaluation process used to determine whether a
claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant is currently
engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the
claimant has a severe impairment or combination of
impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the
severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of
Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can
perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the
impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of
jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform
given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v);
Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237-39).
regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to
demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to
perform past relevant work.” Moore, 405 F.3d
at 1211 (citing Spencer v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090,
1093 (11th Cir. 1985)). “In determining whether the
claimant has satisfied this initial burden, the examiner must
consider four factors: (1) objective medical facts or
clinical findings; (2) the diagnoses of examining physicians;
(3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age,
education, and work history.” Jones v. Bowen,
810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (citing
Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir.
1983) (per curiam)). “These factors must be considered
both singly and in combination. Presence or absence of a
single factor is not, in itself, conclusive.”
Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240 (citations omitted).
Steps One through Four of the five-step evaluation, a
claimant proves that he or she has a qualifying disability
and cannot do his or her past relevant work, it then becomes
the Commissioner's burden, at Step Five, to prove that
the claimant is capable-given his or her age, education, and
work history-of engaging in another kind of substantial
gainful employment that exists in the national economy.
Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir.
1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th
Cir. 1985). Finally, although the “claimant bears the
burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or]
her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security
has an obligation to develop a full and fair record.”
Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987).
See also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276
(11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established
that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair
record. Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of
proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is
responsible for producing evidence in support of his
claim.” (citations omitted)). “This is an onerous
task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe
into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts. In
determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must
consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir.
2015) (per curiam) (citation and quotation omitted).
as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council
denied review of that decision, the Court “review[s]
the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final
decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278.
“[W]hen the [Appeals Council] has denied review, [the
Court] will look only to the evidence actually presented to
the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ's decision is
supported by substantial evidence.” Falge v.
Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998). If the
applicant attacks only the ALJ's decision, the Court may
not consider evidence that was presented to the Appeals
Council but not to the ALJ. See Id. at 1324.
One, the ALJ determined that Jones met the applicable insured
status requirements through December 31, 2016, and that she
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the
alleged disability onset date of January 28, 2012. (Tr. 44).
At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Jones had the following
severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome, right De
Quervains, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. (Tr. 44). At
Step Three, the ALJ found that Jones did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled
the severity of one of the specified impairments in the
relevant Listing of Impairments. (Tr. 51).
the ALJ must assess: (1) the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”); and (2) the
claimant's ability to return to her past relevant work.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). As for the
claimant's RFC, the regulations define RFC as that which
an individual is still able to do despite the limitations
caused by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a). Moreover, the ALJ will “assess and make a
finding about [the claimant's] residual functional
capacity based on all the relevant medical and other
evidence” in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
Furthermore, the RFC determination is used both to determine
whether the claimant: (1) can return to her past relevant
work under the fourth step; and (2) can adjust to other work
under the fifth step…20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
If the claimant can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ
will conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (f). If the claimant cannot
return to her past ...