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Sabrin Valdez v. Saul

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

August 30, 2019

SAUNDRA THEREESE SABRIN VALDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Saundra Thereese Sabrin Valdez, proceeding pro se, appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for widow's disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Based on the court's review of the administrative record and the parties' submissions, the court WILL AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Valdez applied for widow's disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on December 22, 2015. (R. 106, 123, 196-205). Ms. Valdez alleges that her disability began on March 1, 2015. (R. 196). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Valdez's claim on April 29, 2016. (R. 143-147). Ms. Valdez requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (R. 126-127). After holding a hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 10, 2018. (R. 29-38). On April 14, 2017, the Appeals Council granted Ms. Valdez's request for review. (R. 7). The Appeals Council issued a decision on August 21, 2018, modifying in part the ALJ's findings but concluding that Ms. Valdez was not disabled through the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. 4-10). The Appeals Council then granted Ms. Valdez an extension of time to file a civil action in this court through November 16, 2018, the date Ms. Valdez filed her appeal. (R. 2; Doc. 1). Therefore, the case is now ripe for review. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1348(c)(3).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court “must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Under the substantial evidence standard, this court will affirm the ALJ's decision if there exists ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178). The court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (internal quotations and citation omitted). The court must affirm “[e]ven if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Despite the deferential standard for review of claims, the court must “‘scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.'” Henry, 802 F.3d at 1267 (quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)). Moreover, the court must reverse the Commissioner's decision if the ALJ does not apply the correct legal standards. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

         Where, as here, the Appeals Council grants review, the Appeals Council's decision is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this court's review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.900(a)(4)-(5), 404.981, 422.210.

         To determine whether an individual is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The Commissioner considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         Here, the Appeals Council determined that Ms. Valdez has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2015, the alleged onset date. (R. 9). The Appeals Council found that Ms. Valdez has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, affective disorder, and anxiety. (Id.). The Appeals Council then concluded that Ms. Valdez does not suffer from an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or ...


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