Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. CV-94-AR-1041-E. DISTRICT JUDGE: ACKER, WILLIAM M., JR.
Before Anderson and Black, Circuit Judges, and Henderson, Senior Circuit Judge.
This is an appeal from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama affirming the denial of Brenda P. Miles' application for disability insurance benefits. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
Miles applied for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., alleging that she was unable to work because of depression and numerous physical problems. Her application was denied initially and again after reconsideration. Thereafter, she requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Following the hearing, the ALJ also denied her claim. The Appeals Council then rejected Miles' subsequent request for review. The ALJ's decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").*fn1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).
The administrative record contains conflicting opinions with respect to the effect of Miles' physical and mental impairments on her capacity to perform substantial gainful activity.*fn2 Dr. L. Edward Shehi, Jr., a psychiatrist who evaluated Miles' mental condition at the behest of her attorney, found that Miles suffered from major depression. In a questionnaire accompanying his diagnosis he reported a "marked" limitation on her ability to perform in a work setting.*fn3 By contrast, R.J. Kline, Ph.D., a consulting psychologist for the Commissioner, diagnosed a mild adjustment disorder with anxious mood. He found that Miles' ability to perform work-related activities was "quite good and relatively normal." (Administrative Record at 221). Similarly, the physicians who evaluated Miles' physical restrictions came to differing conclusions. David A. McLain, M.D., who examined Miles also at her attorney's request, opined that Miles was "totally disabled from any employment." E(Id. at 285).F Morton S. Rickless, M.D., a consulting physician for the Commissioner, found, on the other hand, that she retained the residual functional capacity to perform tasks associated with sedentary work. E(Id. at 237).F
In a decision issued after the hearing, the ALJ rejected the evaluations of Drs. Shehi and McLain and credited those of Drs. Kline and Rickless as supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ provided several reasons for this credibility determination, which included an observation that "Dr. McLain's examinations for Mr. McCluskey [Miles' attorney] almost invariably conclude that the person being examined is totally disabled." E(Id. at 29).F*fn4 Based upon the opinions of Kline and Rickless and the other evidence of record the ALJ concluded that Miles could no longer perform her past relevant work, but was able to perform other jobs in the economy. He thus determined that she was not disabled.
After the Appeals Council declined review, Miles filed this action in the district court in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).*fn5 In addition to challenging the merits of the Commissioner's decision, Miles asserted that the ALJ's statement concerning McLain's "invariable" findings on behalf of Social Security claimants represented by McCluskey was not supported by evidence in the record. The district court observed that, indeed, there was no such proof. The court stated:
What is the source and substantiation of these statements? It is certainly not in this record. Is the ALJ reflecting on his own past experience or merely restating gossip within the Social Security family?
In point of fact, no matter what the provenance of these statements is, they cannot appear sua sponte (if at all) in the final opinion. Their inclusion is both unfair to Miles, who has had no opportunity to rebut them, and gratuitous insults to Dr. Miles [sic] and Murray P. McCluskey, deserved or not. Whether these comments were based in personal experience or personal animosity, they have no place in the disability evaluation process.
(R1-9 at 16-17). The court concluded, however, that no precedent required reversal of the ALJ's decision due to these prejudicial statements. The court held that, in spite of the ALJ's improper comments, the decision should be affirmed because it was supported by substantial evidence.
Our review in a Social Security case is the same as that of the district court. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). "We may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Rather, we must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Id. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citing, inter alia, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 852 (1971)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence we must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it. Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. There is no presumption, ...