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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

May 24, 2017




         Plaintiff Timothy David Smith seeks judicial review of the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) termination of benefits as of September 30, 2012. Plaintiff was found disabled as of February 1, 2006, and on September 20, 2012, the Commissioner determined he was no longer disabled. The termination of benefits was upheld on reconsideration and plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. The hearing was held on February 5, 2015 and the ALJ issued an unfavorable opinion on March 25, 2015. On July 20, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review and affirmed the prior decision.

         Plaintiff timely filed the instant appeal from the ALJ's most recent decision, and it is now ripe for review. Because both parties have consented to have a magistrate judge conduct all the proceedings in this case as provided in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the undersigned has the authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment. Having considered the record, the briefs and the oral arguments of counsel, the court finds this case should be remanded to the Social Security Administration.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff was born on June 7, 1972 and completed the seventh grade. Docket 8 at 149. He was forty-two years old at the time of the hearing. Id. at 20. Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work during the period of time at issue. Id. Plaintiff contends that his disability continues and that he suffers from chronic depression, social anxiety, panic attacks, irregular heart beat, asthma, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. Id. at 12. The ALJ determined that, as of August 17, 2006, at the time of the comparison point decision or “CPD”, plaintiff suffered from affective mood disorder and anxiety disorder which were found to meet listings 12.04 and 12.06. Id. at 11-12. However, as of September 30, 2012, the ALJ found that plaintiff experienced the following medically determinable impairments: “tachycardia, asthma, diabetes mellitus, dysthymia, anxiety, hypertension and obesity.” Id. The ALJ further concluded that none of the impairments experienced by plaintiff on September 30, 2012 met a listing on their own or when combined. Id. at 14. As such, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had experienced medical improvement and had the residual functional capacity to perform light work with limitations. Id. at 17. Considering the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform the jobs of a bakery raker, a garment sorter and a ticketer. Because the ALJ determined that jobs exist in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, the ALJ concluded that he was no longer disabled as of September 30, 2012. Docket 8 at 21.

         Plaintiff claims the ALJ committed multiple errors. Having reviewed the record and having considered the briefs and the oral arguments of counsel, the court finds reversible error in the manner in which the ALJ determined that medical improvement occurred. The ALJ failed to review plaintiff's prior medical evidence as is required for a finding of medical improvement, without which finding, in the absence of certain exceptional circumstances that do not exist here, there can be no termination of disability benefits. This case should be remanded for the ALJ to obtain and review the file upon which plaintiff's most recent favorable determination was based.


         It is well settled that this court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to two inquiries: “(1) whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Ransom v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 989, 992 (5th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197 (5th cir. 1999); see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971).

         The Fifth Circuit has explicitly addressed the scope of this court's review of the termination of a person's benefits. See Taylor v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 253, 256 (5th Cir. 1984) (citing Buckley v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1047, 1048-49 (5th Cir. 1984)). Even though the burden of proving disability is on a Social Security claimant, “once evidence has been presented which supports a finding that a given condition exists it is presumed in the absence of proof to the contrary that the condition has remained unchanged.” Buckley, 739 F.2d at 1049 (quoting Rivas v. Weinberger, 475 F.2d 255, 258 (5th Cir. 1973)). In other words, once benefits have been awarded, the claimant is afforded a “presumption of continuing disability that requires the Secretary to provide evidence” that the claimant's condition has improved. Taylor, 742 F.2d at 255. In addition, the Commissioner must weigh the facts which formed the basis for the prior determination of disability with the Commissioner's new evidence and any additional evidence submitted by the claimant. Id.

         The Social Security Act explicitly states that, absent exceptions that are not relevant here, a finding that a recipient is no longer entitled to disability benefits must be supported by substantial evidence both that “there has been any medical improvement” and that “the individual is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(f). This plain language dictates that benefits may not be terminated without a finding of medical improvement. According to Social Security Administration regulations, medical improvement is determined as follows:

Medical improvement is any decrease in the medical severity of impairment(s) present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that you were disabled or continued to be disabled and is determined by a comparison of prior and current medical evidence which must show that there have been changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs or laboratory findings associated with that impairment(s).

20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(c)(1) (emphasis added)..


         Where the Commissioner is deciding whether to terminate existing benefits due to an alleged medical improvement, Social Security Administration regulations ...

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