Weatherspoon v. Kijakazi, Civil Action 1:20-00075-N

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Southern District of Alabama
PartiesJEREMY WEATHERSPOON, Plaintiff, v. KILOLO KIJAKAZI, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action 1:20-00075-N
Decision Date14 September 2021


KILOLO KIJAKAZI, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

Civil Action No. 1:20-00075-N

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 14, 2021



Plaintiff Jeremy Weatherspoon brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (collectively, “DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq.[2] Upon due consideration of the parties' briefs (Docs. 16, 17) and those portions of the transcript of the administrative record (Doc. 15) relevant to the issues raised, and with the benefit of oral argument, the Court finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.[3]

I. Procedural Background

Weatherspoon filed the subject DIB and SSI applications with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on January 12, 2017. After they were initially denied, Weatherspoon requested, and on July 9, 2018, received, a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) with the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. On January 31, 2019, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Weatherspoon's applications, finding him not disabled under the Social Security Act and therefore not entitled to benefits. (See Doc. 15, PageID.70-81).

The Commissioner's decision on Weatherspoon's applications became final when the Appeals Council for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied his request for review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision on December 13, 2019. (Id., PageID.46-51). Weatherspoon subsequently brought this action under §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 96 L.Ed. 2D 119 (1987). hearing [for SSI benefits] shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow.”); Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007) (“The settled law of this Circuit is that a court may review, under sentence four of section 405(g), a denial of review by the Appeals Council.”).

II. Standards of Review

“In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted).

The phrase “substantial evidence” is a “term of art” used throughout administrative law to describe how courts are to review agency factfinding T-Mobile South, LLC v. Roswell, 574 U.S.___, ___ 135 S.Ct. 808, 815, 190 L.Ed.2d 679 (2015). Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficien[t] evidence” to support the agency's factual determinations. Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed 126 (1938) (emphasis deleted). And whatever the meaning of “substantial” in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial evidence ... is “more than a mere scintilla.” Ibid.; see, e.g., [Richardson v.] Perales, 402 U.S. [389, ] 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420[, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)] (internal quotation marks omitted). It means-and means only-“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolidated Edison, 305 U.S. at 229, 59 S.Ct. 206. See Dickinson v. Zurko, 527 U.S 150, 153, 119 S.Ct. 1816, 144 L.Ed.2d 143 (1999) (comparing the substantial-evidence standard to the deferential clearly-erroneous standard).

Biestek v. Berryhill, ___ U.S. ___, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154, 203 L.Ed.2d 504 (2019).

In reviewing the Commissioner's factual findings, a court “ ‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].' ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983))). “ ‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s factual findings, [the Court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.' ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). See also Hunter v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 808 F.3d 818, 822 (11th Cir. 2015) (“A preponderance of the evidence is not required. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, we give great deference to the ALJ's factfindings.” (citation omitted)).

Put another way, “[u]nder the substantial evidence standard, we cannot look at the evidence presented to [an administrative agency] to determine if interpretations of the evidence other than that made by the [agency] are possible. Rather, we review the evidence that was presented to determine if the findings made by the [agency] were unreasonable. To that end, [judicial] inquiry is highly deferential and we consider only whether there is substantial evidence for the findings made by the [agency], not whether there is substantial evidence for some other finding that could have been, but was not, made. That is, even if the evidence could support multiple conclusions, we must affirm the agency's decision unless there is no reasonable basis for that decision.” Adefemi v. Ashcroft, 386 F.3d 1022, 1029 (11th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (citations and quotation omitted).[4]

“Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [A court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light of all the relevant facts.”).[5]

The “substantial evidence” “standard of review applies only to findings of fact. No similar presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner]'s conclusions of law, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (quotation omitted). Accord, e.g., Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982) (“Our standard of review for appeals from the administrative denials of Social Security benefits dictates that ‘(t)he findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive ....' 42 U.S.C.A. s 405(g) ... As is plain from the statutory language, this deferential standard of review is applicable only to findings of fact made by the Secretary, and it is well established that no similar presumption of validity attaches to the Secretary's conclusions of law, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” (some quotation marks omitted)). This Court “conduct[s] ‘an exacting examination' of these factors.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). “ ‘The [Commissioner]'s failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.' ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)). Accord Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).

In sum, courts “review the Commissioner's factual findings with deference and the Commissioner's legal conclusions with close scrutiny.” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). See also Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (“In Social Security appeals, we review de novo the legal principles upon which the Commissioner's decision is based. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, we review the resulting decision only to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004).”). Moreover, an ALJ's decision must “state with at least some measure of clarity the grounds for [the] decision.” Owens, 748 F.2d at 1516; Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. A court cannot “affirm simply because some rationale might have supported the [Commissioner]' conclusion[, ]” as “[s]uch an approach would not advance the ends of reasoned decision making.” Owens, 748 F.2d at 1516. Rather, “an agency's order must be upheld, if at all, on the same basis articulated in the order by the agency itself.” Fed. Power Comm'n v. Texaco Inc., 417 U.S. 380, 397, 94 S.Ct....

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