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Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

January 31, 2017




         Plaintiff, Priscilla Thomas, seeks judicial review of the denial of her claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision did not employ proper legal standards, the decision is reversed in part.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on May 19, 2014. (Tr. 209-18.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 69-120.) Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 145-46.) Upon Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 25-66.) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and, accordingly, denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 8-24.) Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. 1-8, 67-68.) Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court. (Dkt. 1.) The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1961 and has a high school education, claimed disability beginning on January 15, 2014. (Tr. 34-35, 209-18.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work as a survey worker, telephone solicitor, telephone answering service operator, personal recruiter, and appointment clerk. (Tr. 17, 61-63.) Plaintiff has not performed substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2014, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 13.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to lower back pain, high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome, and depression. (Tr. 69, 121, 125.)

         After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: problems with her cervical and lumbar spine, hypertension, and obesity. (Tr. 13-14.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's claimed impairments of depression, history of alcohol abuse, and condition after a right wrist fracture were non-severe. (Tr. 14.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 14.)

         The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except that, as a result of obesity and cervical and lumbar spine problems, Plaintiff was limited to lifting twenty pounds occasionally and lifting and carrying ten pounds frequently. (Tr. 14.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff would require a sit/stand option, sitting up to one hour at a time and standing up to fifteen minutes at a time. (Tr. 14.) Further, Plaintiff can sit and stand for a total of eight hours a day. (Tr. 14.) In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not fully credible. (Tr. 17.)

         Considering Plaintiff's noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a survey worker, telephone solicitor, telephone answering service operator, customer service representative, service observer, personnel recruiter, and appointment clerk. (Tr. 17-18.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 18-19.)


         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning that the claimant must be unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and, (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). While the court reviews the Commissioner's decision with deference to the ...

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