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Freeman v. Berryhill

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

August 7, 2019

AUNDREA NICOLE FREEMAN, o/b/o I.F., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner, SSA, Defendant.



         Aundrea Nicole Freeman brings this action on behalf of her minor child, I.F., pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ'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 applied the correct legal standards and that his decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the decision is due be affirmed.


         Freeman filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on behalf of her minor daughter, I.F., asserting that I.F. suffered from a disability beginning on August 31, 2009 due to autism. R. 244, 258. On April 6, 2011, the SSA found I.F. to be disabled as defined by the Act beginning January 19, 2011, when I.F. was three years old, and awarded her benefits. R. 45. As required by statute, the SSA conducted a continuing disability review and determined that I.F. was no longer disabled for purposes of the Act as of January 1, 2015, when I.F. was seven years old. R. 45, 86-87, 90. Freeman requested reconsideration, and a disability hearing officer upheld the finding that I.F. was no longer disabled. R. 45, 89, 95-98, 105-13. Subsequently, Freeman requested a hearing before an ALJ, who also found that I.F.'s disability ended as of January 1, 2015 and that I.F. has not been disabled since that date. R. 45, 135. The SSA Appeals Council denied Freeman's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Freeman filed this petition for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g). Doc. 1.


         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.'” Id. (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.


         An individual applying for DIB bears the burden of proving that she is disabled. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). 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).

         For claimants under age 18, determination of disability under the Act requires a three-step analysis. Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the child is working;
(2) whether the child has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; and
(3) whether the child's impairment or combination of impairments meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of an impairment in the Listing of Impairments.

Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)). A child's impairment “medically equals' the limitations in a listed impairment “if the child's limitations ‘are at least of equal medical significance to those of [the] listed impairment.'” Shinn ex rel. Shinn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 391 F.3d 1276, 1279 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a)(2)). To determine whether a child's impairment or combination of impairments “functionally equals” a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the degree to which the impairments limits the child's activities across the following six domains:

(1) acquiring and using information;
(2) attending and completing ...

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