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Freeman v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

August 21, 2018

STEPHANIE FREEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Stephanie Freeman, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”)[1] denying her application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Ms. Freeman timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §' 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Additionally, on June 7, 2018, the plaintiff filed a motion for remand of this matter to the Commissioner pursuant to Sentence Six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), based upon a favorable decision entered in the plaintiff's favor by a different administrative law judge in a subsequently-filed disability application. (Doc. 19). A copy of that decision by another ALJ is attached to the motion. (Doc. 19-1). The government has filed a brief in opposition. (Doc. 20).

         The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c).

         Ms. Freeman was 38 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. Although she dropped out of school in the ninth-grade, she later received her GED. (Tr. at 44, 57). Her past work experiences include work as a janitor, a cashier, an assembly-line worker, and a mental health technician. (Tr. at 28). Ms. Freeman claims that she became disabled on December 14, 2012, due to depression, anxiety, back pain, leg pain, and bladder problems. (Tr. at 228).

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If she does not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment based on all relevant evidence of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Freeman has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the alleged date of onset through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 28). Although he determined that Ms. Freeman has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability (Tr. at 18), the ALJ found that Ms. Freeman's degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the L5-S1 joint and facet joints may be considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 18-10). He further determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 21). The ALJ did not find Ms. Freeman's allegations of the disabling effects of her impairments to be entirely credible. (Tr. at 28). He determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work with the following limitations: that she can sit at least two hours without interruption and six hours in an eight-hour workday; can stand and/or work at least two hours without interruption and a total of at least six hours in an eight-hour workday; cannot climb ladders, ropes, poles, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can frequently use her upper extremities for reaching overhead; can frequently use her lower extremities for pushing, pulling, and operating foot controls; can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; can occasionally crawl; can occasionally work in humidity, wetness, and extreme temperatures; can occasionally work in dust, gases, odors and fumes; cannot work in poorly ventilated areas; cannot work at unprotected heights; cannot work with operating hazardous machinery; can frequently work while exposed to vibration; can frequently operate motor vehicles. (Tr. at 21).

         According to the ALJ, Ms. Freeman is able to perform past relevant work as a production assembler, mental health technician, cashier, and industrial cleaner. (Tr. at 28). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff is “not disabled” under the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 28).

         II. Standard of Review

         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolov.Fed.Mar.Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. Discussion

         A. Remand Motion

         As a threshold matter, the court is required to examine the Plaintiff's motion to remand this case to the Commissioner under Sentence Six of § 405(g). In her motion filed June 7, 2018, the Plaintiff points out that after the denial of disability benefits in the instant case on July 28, 2015, a different ALJ in a different application granted her disability benefits on June 4, 2018, finding her disabled from and after an onset date of August 6, 2015.[2] Ms. Freeman contends that this fully favorable decision constitutes “new evidence” that was not available to her at the time she sought benefits in the instant matter. She notes that, in awarding her disability benefits beginning on August 6, 2015, the ALJ in the other case relied upon an evaluation by the Plaintiff's physician dated November 13, 2014, which is the same evaluation report considered by the ALJ in the instant case in which disability benefits were denied. She appears to argue that the fact of this fully favorable decision finding her disabled as of August 6, 2015, should be considered in this case as “new evidence” that, in fact, she was disabled on July 28, 2015, when she received the unfavorable determination in the instant case.

         Sentence six of § 405(g) authorizes the district court to remand a case to the Commissioner “upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Jackson v. Chater, 99 F.3d 1086, 1092 (11th Cir. 1996). The court of appeals has explained that a Sentence Six remand is not contingent upon the district court finding error by the Commissioner. “A sentence-six remand does not result from any error by the Commissioner. A sentence-six remand is warranted even in the absence of any error by the Commissioner if new, material evidence becomes available to a claimant, and the claimant could not have presented that evidence at his original hearing.” Jackson v. Chater, 99 F.3d 1086, 1095 (11th Cir. 1996). The purpose of a Sentence Six remand is to allow the Commissioner to consider “new” and “material” evidence not available at the time of the Commissioner's determination. Assuming “new” and “material” evidence of disability is developed after the Commissioner's determination, the district court may order a remand to the Commissioner for consideration of such evidence, while retaining jurisdiction of the case for review after reconsideration by the Commissioner. See Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1261 (11th Cir. 2007) (“[S]entence six is appropriate for the Commissioner to consider new evidence that the Commissioner did not have an opportunity to consider because the evidence was not properly submitted to the Appeals Council.”).

         Because the fully favorable decision dated June 4, 2018, was not available for consideration by the Commissioner at the time of the final determination in this case, there is no question that it is “new” and “there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” The issue is whether the fact of the fully favorable determination is evidence that is “material” to the earlier determination made in instant case. To be “material” for purposes of triggering a Sentence Six remand, the new evidence must be “relevant and probative so that there is a reasonable possibility that it would change the administrative result….” Caulder v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 872, 877 (11th Cir. 1986). The court believes it is not.

         To be clear, the “new” evidence advanced here by Ms. Freeman is the simple fact of the subsequent favorable decision made in another application for benefits was a different onset date. Her motion for remand pursuant to Sentence Six states plainly:

Plaintiff moves to remand this claim pursuant to Sentence Six of 42 U.S.C. §405(g) based on a subsequent Favorable Decision with an onset date just after the ALJ denial and based on the issues previously raised. A subsequent Fully Favorable decision was issued on 6/4/18 with an onset date of 8/6/15. [Citation to exhibit omitted].
The ALJ issued an Unfavorable Decision on 7/28/15. (R-13-39) The subsequent Fully Favorable decision [Citation to exhibit omitted] was not available prior to filing the lawsuit. Because the evidence is new, it ...

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