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Kelly v. Berryhill

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

July 16, 2018

TINA MARIE KELLY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On October 17, 2011, Plaintiff Tina Marie Kelly applied for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, alleging a disability onset date of February 23, 2001. Kelly's claim was denied at the initial administrative level so she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). This hearing was rescheduled several times. On February 5, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing, and on May 16, 2014 denied Kelly's claims. Kelly requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, and that request was granted. The Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ on December 28, 2015. The Appeals Council remanded the case with instructions that the ALJ evaluate Kelly's mental impairments and provide specific findings and appropriate rationale for each of the functional areas described in the regulations, give further consideration to Kelly's maximum residual functional capacity and provide specific references in support of the assessed limitations, and obtain warranted supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Kelly's occupational base. R. 194.

         A hearing was held on April 20, 2016, and Kelly appeared without counsel. She received an unfavorable decision on May 9, 2016. The Appeals Council denied review of the hearing decision on December 15, 2016. Therefore, the hearing decision became the final decision of the Commission of Social Security. Kelly subsequently filed a complaint seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision in this court.

         The case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. After thoroughly reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, and for the reasons stated herein, the court finds that the ALJ applied proper legal standards and that her decision is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the ALJ's decision will be affirmed, as set forth below.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court reviews a Social Security appeal to determine whether the Commissioner's decision “is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The court will reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is convinced that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence or that the proper legal standards were not applied. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). The court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, ” but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if the evidence preponderates against the Secretary's factual findings, [the court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). Moreover, reversal is not warranted even if the court itself would have reached a result contrary to that of the factfinder. See Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991).

         The substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable person would accept the evidence in the record as adequate to support the challenged conclusion.” Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1208 (11th Cir. 1988) (quoting Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983)). The requisite evidentiary showing has been described as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached and cannot “act as [an] automaton[] in reviewing the [Commissioner's] decision.” Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court must consider evidence both favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision. Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 225 (11th Cir. 1990).

         The court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Id. (citing Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law are valid. Id.

         II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the “inability to engage in 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). A claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and he is responsible for producing evidence to support his claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

         A determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) Is the claimant performing substantial gainful activity?
(2) Does she have a severe impairment?
(3) Does she have a severe impairment that equals one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Sub pt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the claimant able to perform past relevant work?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform other work given her residual functional capacity, age, education, ...

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