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Poston v. Saul

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

October 31, 2019

JOHN MARTIN POSTON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          WALLACE CAPEL, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff John Martin Poston (“Poston”) filed this action on October 12, 2018, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. Poston filed his DIB and SSI applications on December 19, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of September 18, 2014. R. 275, 276. The applications were denied at the initial administrative level, following which Poston requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R.11. On August 17, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, and the Appeals Council denied Poston's request for review of that decision on September 4, 2018. R 1-7, 8-28. The ALJ's decision consequently became the Commissioner's final decision. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). This court has jurisdiction over Poston's action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Docs. 19 and 20.

         The undersigned has considered the parties' briefs and all the evidence in the administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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 - i.e., 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 (1971)); Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         If the 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).

         The Court will also reverse a Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law or if the decision 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).

         III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         The 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 on proof of indigence and disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). However, despite the fact they are separate programs, the law and regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are identical; therefore, 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 defines disability 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 do the following:

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 12 months.

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 that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner of Social Security uses a five-step, sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant is entitled to benefits:

(1) Is the person currently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment(s) ...

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