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Beckum v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

December 17, 2014

ROBERT WESLEY BECKUM, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

BRIAN K. EPPS, Magistrate Judge.

Robert Wesley Beckum appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act. Upon consideration of the briefs, the record evidence, and the relevant statutory and case law, the Court REPORTS and RECOMMENDS pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), that the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and that the case be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further consideration in accordance with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff protectively applied for DIB and SSI on February 5, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of November 30, 2008. Tr. ("R."), pp. 55-58. The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. R. 63-66, 71-76. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), R. 78-82, and the ALJ held a hearing on June 21, 2012. R. 21-48. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and from Steven Cosgrove, a Vocational Expert ("VE"). Id . On July 12, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 7-20.

Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 30, 2008, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq. and § 416.971 et seq. ).
2. The claimant has the following medically determinable impairments: diabetes mellitus and diabetic retinopathy (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521 et seq. and 416.921 et seq. The claimant, however, does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant does not have a severe impairments or combination of impairments. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521 et seq. and 416.921 et seq. (c)).

R. 12-15.

Because the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the sequential evaluation process stopped, and the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 30, 2008, through July 12, 2012 (the date of the decision). R. 15. When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-5, the Commissioner's decision became "final" for the purpose of judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff then filed this civil action requesting reversal or remand of the adverse decision. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because (1) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff did not have any severe impairments, and (2) the ALJ erred in failing to present a complete hypothetical question to the VE that accurately described all of Plaintiff's relevant limitations. See doc. no. 10 ("Pl.'s Br."). The Commissioner maintains that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 12 ("Comm'r's Br.")

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of social security cases is narrow and limited to the following questions: (1) whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). When considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). Notwithstanding this measure of deference, the Court remains obligated to scrutinize the whole record to determine whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

The Commissioner's factual findings should be affirmed if there is substantial evidence to support them. Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance: [i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If the Court finds substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's factual findings, it must uphold the Commissioner even if the evidence preponderates in favor of the claimant. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004). Finally, the Commissioner's findings of fact must be grounded in the entire record; a decision that focuses on one aspect of the evidence and disregards other contrary evidence is not based upon substantial evidence. McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1548 (11th Cir. 1986).

The deference accorded the Commissioner's findings of fact does not extend to her conclusions of law, which enjoy no presumption of validity. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding that judicial review of the Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to the substantial evidence standard). If the Commissioner fails either to apply correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with the means to determine whether correct legal ...


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