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Miller v. Berryhill

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

December 10, 2018

JAMES ARTHUR MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On 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.

         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 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.

         I. NATURE OF THE CASE

         Miller 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.

         II. 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 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).

         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 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).

         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. 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.

         If the 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.

         III. 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). 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).

         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 presently unable to engage in substantial ...

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