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Butters v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2019

TREVOR LEE BUTTERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Trevor Butters 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 Administrative Law Judge's denial of disability insurance benefits, which has become the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). For the reasons explained below, the court finds that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is due to be reversed and remanded.

         I. Procedural History

         Butters, who served in the Marine Corps and National Guard, worked previously as a military policeman, sales representative, route sales driver, and car rental manager. R. 191-198. He stopped working in 2014 due to his alleged disability. Id. Butters filed his application for disability benefits thereafter asserting a disability onset date beginning on April 1, 2016 due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), back injury, depression, and sleep apnea. R. 66, 176. After the SSA denied his application, Butters requested a formal hearing before an ALJ. R. 78, 87, 103. Ultimately, the ALJ entered a decision against Butters. R. 15-25. The Appeals Council affirmed, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-3. Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Butters filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 11.

         II. Standard of Review

          Federal district courts review the SSA's findings of fact under the “substantial evidence” standard of review. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c); 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.” See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing 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.” Id. (internal citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner's factual findings, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner. Id.

         In reviewing findings of fact, credibility determinations are the province of the ALJ. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005). However, “[t]he testimony of a treating physician must ordinarily be given substantial or considerable weight unless good cause is shown to the contrary, ” and the failure of the Secretary “to specify what weight is given to a treating physician's opinion and any reason for giving it no weight” constitutes reversible error. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986). Courts have found good cause to discount a treating physician's report when it is “not accompanied by objective medical evidence, . . . wholly conclusory, ” or “inconsistent with [the physician's] own medical records.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583 (11th Cir. 1991). In contrast to the opinion of a treating physician, “the opinion of a non-examining physician is entitled to little weight if it is contrary to the opinion of the claimant's treating physician.” Broughton v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 960, 962 (11th Cir. 1985).

         In contrast to factual findings, the court reviews the SSA's conclusions of law de novo, see Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987), and “[f]ailure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds not for remand but, for reversal.” Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). No. presumption attaches to either the ALJ's choice of legal standard or to the ALJ's application of the correct legal standard to the facts. Id. And, reviewing courts have the power “to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (emphasis added).

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          An individual applying for DIB bears the burden of proving that she is disabled. Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211. To qualify, 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 416(i)(I)(A). 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).

         Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Specifically, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the impairment meets or is medically equivalent to one listed ...

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