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Stanley v. Berryhill

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

April 19, 2018

ELOISE STANLEY for A.L.M., a minor, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Eloise Stanley, on behalf of A.L.M., appeals the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. Upon consideration of the briefs submitted by both parties, 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), the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and the case be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further consideration in accordance with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 13, 2013, Plaintiff applied for SSI on behalf of Claimant, alleging disability from bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, with a stated onset date of July 1, 2010. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 22, 157, 183. At the time of the application under review, Claimant was nine years old, and she was twelve years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the opinion under consideration. R. 35, 157. The Social Security Administration denied Claimant's application initially and on reconsideration. R. 80, 94, 106-09. Plaintiff requested a hearing before the ALJ, R. 110-15, and the ALJ held a hearing on July 26, 2016. R. 41-68. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and Claimant, who appeared with an attorney. Id. On August 15, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 19-40.

         Applying the three-step sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a), the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 13, 2013, the application date (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder with psychotic features, oppositional defiant disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder. (20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924, 416.925, and 416.926). The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924(d) and 416.926(a)). Thus, the claimant has not been disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act, since September 13, 2013, the date the application was filed. (20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a)).

R. 25-35.

         When the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-6, 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 that adverse decision. Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because (1) the ALJ failed to consider the nature and extent of Claimant's special education and placement when determining Claimant had a marked impairment in the single domain of interacting and relating with others, and (2) the AC erred in refusing to remand the case to the ALJ based on counsel's submission of additional items of school and medical evidence. See doc. no. 15-1 (“Pl.'s Br.”); doc. no. 18 (“Pl.'s Reply”). The Commissioner maintains the administrative decision is supported by substantial evidence, and the AC properly addressed Plaintiff's additional evidence. See doc. no. 17 (“Comm'r's Br.”). As explained below, the Court agrees with Plaintiff that remand is necessary to consider additional evidence concerning Claimant's school performance and mental health.


         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 ...

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