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Phelps v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia, Macon Division

August 5, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Social Security Appeal


Charles H. Weigle, United States Magistrate Judge

This is a review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Gregory Phelps’ application for benefits. In accordance with the analysis below, it is RECOMMENDED that the Commissioner’s decision be AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI benefits on March 18, 2010. (Pl.’s Br., Doc. 12, p. 3). At the time of filing, Plaintiff, who was born on July 7, 1962, was 47 years old. (Id.). Plaintiff claims to see and hear dead people. (R. 53-62). Plaintiff also suffers from headaches, is illiterate, and has a history of substance abuse. (R. 46, 57-58, 60).

The record indicates that Plaintiff previously received social security benefits due to mild mental retardation, but those benefits appear to have been terminated when Plaintiff was incarcerated for burglary in the 1980s.[1] (R. 39-42, 296). The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) assigned to review Plaintiff’s 2010 application summarized the sequence of events as follows at a hearing held on February 23, 2012:

[T]here was a Title XVI claim filed, application 3/12/1975. And there was a decision for an allowance and so that payment was from 7/17/1975 until March 18, 1986. And that was a date of incarceration is the way it looked like to me. There was another Title XVI application, 11/3/88 and that was denied at the initial level in 1989. And then there was an application, 7/3/2004 which was also denied at the initial level . . . .

Plaintiff’s attorney, at Plaintiff’s administrative hearing, asked the ALJ to obtain Plaintiff’s prior claim files in the hopes of finding an IQ satisfying the requirements of Listing 12.05 (“Intellectual disability”), paragraphs B or C. (R. 41). The ALJ, however, in her unfavorable decision, determined that while “the earlier records might show a low IQ score as a child, this would not be evidence of current IQ functioning under the regulations.” (R. 23). Plaintiff subsequently sought review before the Appeals Council, which denied review in Plaintiff’s case on March 4, 2013. (R. 1-3). Plaintiff now seeks review before this Court under “sentence four” of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ingram v. Comm’r., 496 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2007). She raises two grounds for relief (1) that the ALJ erred by failing to obtain Plaintiff’s 1975 Title XVI claims files; and (2) that the ALJ improperly relied upon the opinion of Dr. Robbins-Brinson, a consultative examiner.


District courts have a limited role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act. Review of the Commissioner’s decision is restricted to a determination of whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla and means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Consequently, a court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is quite narrow.

District courts must defer to the Commissioner’s factual findings. Courts may not decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute their judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Credibility determinations are left to the Commissioner and not to the courts. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). It is also up to the Commissioner and not to the courts to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986). See also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986). Courts must scrutinize the entire administrative record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s factual findings. Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, the decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. Id.

The Commissioner’s findings of law are given less deference. Courts must determine if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision. Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980). Courts must therefore consider any questions of law de novo, and “no . . . presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner’s] conclusions of law, including determinations of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982). The Commissioner’s failure to apply the correct legal standards or to provide a sufficient factual basis for the court to determine that the correct legal standards have been followed is grounds for reversal. Id.


Persons are “disabled” for the purposes of receiving benefits under the Social Security Act if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last ...

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