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Barbee v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

July 24, 2018

ANGELA T. BARBEE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         This case is back before the Court following a remand. Plaintiff Angela T. Barbee brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ms. Barbee seeks a review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who denied her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Barbee exhausted the administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. This case is now ripe for judicial review under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Court carefully reviewed the record in this case and AFFIRMS in part, REVERSES in part, and REMANDS the ALJ's decision.

         II. Relevant Background

         The alleged onset date is January 10, 2010. (Tr. 624). Ms. Barbee suffers from numerous severe impairments, but the ALJ found that none rendered her disabled. (Id. at 626, 639). Ms. Barbee filed an application for Social Security benefits on August 18, 2011. (Id. at 708). The Social Security Administration denied that application on December 30, 2011. (Id.). Administrative Law Judge Cynthia G. Weaver held a hearing on February 20, 2013. (Id.). The ALJ issued her first decision on May 17, 2013, which was unfavorable to Ms. Barbee. (Id. at 743). Ms. Barbee requested the Appeals Council review the claim. (Id. at 750). They refused. (Id.).

         Ms. Barbee then filed her complaint in the Northern District of Alabama on January 30, 2015. (Doc. 1). Before the Commissioner filed an answer, she filed an unopposed motion to remand the case based on Sentence 6. (Doc. 7). The reason for the remand was that there was not a good recording of the hearing. (Id. at 2-3). The case went back down, and the ALJ held a new hearing on September 21, 2016. (Tr. 624). The ALJ then issued another decision, which was still unfavorable to Ms. Barbee. (Id. at 639). Ms. Barbee asked the Appeals Council to review her case. (See Id. at 615-16). The Appeals Council refused to “assume jurisdiction.” (Id.). Ms. Barbee moved to reopen her case before the Court, and the Court granted the request. (Docs. 9, 10). Briefing was completed on March 23, 2018. (Docs. 16, 17, 18). The matter accordingly is ripe for determination.

         III. Standards

         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). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court.

         The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. Statutory and Regulatory Framework 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.[1] 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 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. 1986). The sequential analysis goes as follows:

Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.

Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         V. Finding of the Administrative Law Judge

         After considering the record, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2012.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 10, 2010[, ] through her date last insured of December 31, 2012 (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, anxiety and depression (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, ...

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