United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
ANN M. HIGGINBOTHAM, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
January 30, 2014, Plaintiff Ann Higginbotham applied for
Supplemental Security Income benefits alleging her disability
began on March 19, 2004. R. 22 & 158- 163. Her
application was denied initially and on reconsideration. R.
112-26, 127 & 128- 31. Upon a timely request, Plaintiff
provided testimony by phone at an administrative hearing held
on May 2, 2016. The hearing was held before Administrative
Law judge Ricky V. South. R. 37-79. The ALJ rendered an
unfavorable decision on May 25, 2016. R. 16-35.
the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review. R. 1-6. As a result, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”). R. 1-6. Judicial review
proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c). After careful scrutiny of the record and
briefs, for reasons herein explained, the court concludes
that the Commissioner's decision is to be AFFIRMED.
NATURE OF THE CASE
seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision
denying her 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's review of the Commissioner's decision is a
limited one. The Court's sole function is to determine
whether the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial
evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied.
See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir.
1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239
(11th Cir. 1983). “The Social Security Act mandates
that ‘findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive.'” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d
1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §405(g)).
Thus, this Court must find the Commissioner's decision
conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence.
Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir.
1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-that is,
the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of
the existence of a fact and must include such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to
support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d
1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); Foote, 67
F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d
835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).
Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial
evidence, the district court will affirm even if the court
would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and
even if the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner's findings. Ellison v. Barnhart,
355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); Edwards v.
Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991)
(quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053
(11th Cir. 1986)). The court must view the evidence as a
whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as
unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560
(citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th
Cir. 1986)). The court “may not decide 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) (quoting
Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239).
court also reverses a Commissioner's decision on plenary
review if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to
provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to
determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law.
Keeton v. Dep 't of Health and Human Servs., 21
F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). There
is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of
law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d
1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor, 786
F.2d at 1053).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
Social Security Act's general disability insurance
benefits program (“DIB”) provides income to
individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature
retirement, provided they are both insured and disabled,
regardless of indigence. See 42 U.S.C. §
423(a). The Social Security Act's Supplemental Security
Income (“SSI”) is a separate and distinct
program. SSI is a general public assistance measure providing
an additional resource to the aged, blind, and disabled to
assure that their income does not fall below the poverty
line. Eligibility for SSI is based upon proof of indigence
and disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a)
& 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). However, despite the fact that they
are separate programs, the law and regulations governing a
claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are identical, so claims
for DIB and SSI are treated identically for the purpose of
determining whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v.
Bowen, 799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n. 1 (11th Cir. 1986).
Applicants under DIB and SSI must prove
“disability” within the meaning of the Social
Security Act, which is defined in virtually identical
language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3) & 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a) & 416.905(a). A person is
entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable to
[e]ngage 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
42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(A). A
“physical or mental impairment” is one resulting
from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C.
§§ 423(d)(3) & 1382c(a)(3)(D).
Commissioner of Social Security employs a five-step,
sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant
is entitled to benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520 & 416.920 (2010).
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment(s) meet or equal one of
the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. ...