United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
January 20, 2015, Plaintiff James Arthur Miller applied for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits under
Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”)
alleging a disability onset date of April 15, 2006. R. 16.
Miller subsequently amended the disability date to September
1, 2010. R. 194-95. Miller then requested and received a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) on March 30, 2016. R. 16. On October 4,
2016, the ALJ denied Miller's claims. R. 29. Miller's
request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals
Council was denied on August 5, 2017. R. 1. As a result, the
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (the
“Commissioner”) as of August 5, 2017.
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 for the undersigned
United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings in
this case and to enter a final judgment. See Docs.
10 & 11. Based on the court's careful review of the
parties' arguments, the record, and the relevant case
law, the court concludes that the decision of the
Commissioner is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED to the ALJ
for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
NATURE OF THE CASE
seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision
denying his application for disability insurance benefits.
United States District Courts may conduct limited review of
such decisions to determine whether they comply with
applicable law and are supported by substantial evidence. 42
U.S.C. § 405. The court may affirm, reverse and remand
with instructions, or reverse and render a judgment.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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 quotations and
citations 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).
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 v. Heckler, 703
F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). 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).
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. 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.
ALJ finds at step three that the claimant is disabled, and
there is medical evidence of drug addiction or alcoholism,
the ALJ must then determine whether the drug addiction or
alcoholism was a material contributing factor to the
disability determination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535(a). The
key factor in determining whether drug addiction or
alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the
determination of disability is whether the claimant would
still be found disabled, i.e., whether the current
physical and mental limitations would remain if the claimant
stopped using drugs or alcohol. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1535(b)(1). If the Commissioner finds that the remaining
limitations are disabling, she will find that the drug
addiction or alcoholism is not a contributing factor and that
the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1535(b)(2)(ii). Plaintiff bears the burden of providing
that any drug or alcohol addiction is not a contributing
factor material to a disability determination. Doughty v.
Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1279-80 (11th Cir. 2001). A
finding that the alcoholism is a contributing factor material
to the disability determination, precluding the award of
social security benefits, will be affirmed if supported by
substantial evidence. See id.
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
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). Miller 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).
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 presently unable to engage in substantial