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Scales v. Berryhill

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

January 9, 2019

RORY O. SCALES, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Rory O. Scales brings this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). The court finds that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") applied the correct legal standards and that his decision, which has become the decision of the Commissioner, is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the court AFFIRMS the decision denying benefits.

         I. Procedural History

         Scales filed an application for disability insurance benefits on September 28, 2000, alleging disability due to back pain and major depression. See R. 91-92. The SSA found Scales to be disabled as defined by the Act beginning April 11, 2001, and the SSA awarded him benefits. R. 85, 89. In November 2012, the SSA conducted a continuing disability review, as required by statute, and scheduled consultative examinations for Scales. R. 358-59. Scales did not go to the examinations, and he did not submit to an interview with the SSA. R. 248-49, 252, 357-72. Accordingly, based on Scales' failure to cooperate and the insufficient evidence to show Scales' continued disability, the SSA determined that Scales was no longer disabled for purposes of the Act. R. 98, 101-02, 357-72. Scales requested reconsideration, but the SSA again found that Scales was not disabled because there was insufficient evidence to assess the severity of Scales' impairments. R. 105, 107, 120, 124. Subsequently, Scales requested a hearing before an ALJ, who found that Scales' disability ended as of November 1, 2012. R. 25, 126-27.[1] The SSA Appeals Council denied Scales' request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1. Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Scales filed this petition for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g). Doc. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner's "factual findings are conclusive if supported by 'substantial evidence.'" Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is '"reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.'" Id. (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of evidence; '"[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner's factual findings even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. See Id. While judicial review of the ALJ's findings is limited in scope, it "does not yield automatic affirmance." Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.

         In contrast to the deferential review accorded the Commissioner's factual findings, "conclusions of law, including applicable review standards, are not presumed valid" and are subject to de novo review. Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. The Commissioner's failure to "apply the correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed" requires reversal. Id.

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          42 U.S.C. § 423(f) governs the termination of disability benefits and provides in pertinent part that:

A recipient of benefits . . . may be determined not to be entitled to such benefits on the basis of a finding that [his] . . . physical or mental impairment . . . has ceased, does not exist, or is not disabling only if such finding is supported by [] substantial evidence which demonstrates that-
a. there has been any medical improvement in the individual's impairment or combination of impairments (other than medical improvement which is not related to the individual's ability to work), and
b. the individual is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity....

42 U.S.C. § 423(f)(1). The SSA uses an eight-step sequential analysis when determining whether to terminate disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1594(f). The SSA's review may cease at any step in the analysis if it determines there is sufficient evidence to find that a recipient of ...

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