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Knight v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 31, 2017




         Plaintiff, Erika Dawn Knight, seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits. As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and employed proper legal standards, the decision is affirmed.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on February 17, 2011, alleging disability beginning December 27, 2010. (Tr. 279.) She later amended her alleged onset date to March 1, 2011. (Tr. 322.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 28.) Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 28.) Upon Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held an initial hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified on March 29, 2013. (Tr. 84.) Plaintiff also testified at a hearing held on July 26, 2013 and requested a ninety-day postponement to procure legal representation. (Tr. 75, 77.) The Plaintiff again testified at a supplemental hearing to consider additional medical evidence on November 18, 2013. (Tr. 52.) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 28.) Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. 1.) 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 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born on January 9, 1975, claimed disability beginning on March 1, 2011. (Tr. 279, 322.) Plaintiff has a twelfth grade education. (Tr. 322.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a data entry clerk. (Tr. 39.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to headaches, migraines, back problems, anxiety/panic disorder, chronic pain, major depression disorder, agoraphobia, and back injury. (Tr. 331, 373.)

         In rendering the decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not performed substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2011, the amended alleged disability-onset date. (Tr. 30.) After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic low back pain syndrome, obesity, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 30.) Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in Title 20, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listing”). (Tr. 30.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in Title 20, Code of Federal Regulations Part 404, Section 1567(a). (Tr. 32.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the ability to lift/carry ten pounds and stand/walk and sit for six hours each in an eight-hour workday. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl, but cannot climb ropes or scaffolds and ladders exceeding six feet and is limited to no more than occasional overhead reaching. Further, she should avoid frequently ascending and descending stairs and pushing/pulling motions with her lower extremities within the aforementioned weight restrictions. She should be restricted to a clean work environment with low and clear lighting conditions. The ALJ found that Plaintiff requires work that is simple and unskilled or low semiskilled in nature, which are tasks performed so frequently as to be considered routine, even though the tasks themselves might not be considered simple. Further, due to her mild to moderate pain and medication side effects, Plaintiff should avoid hazards in the workplace such as unprotected areas of moving machinery, heights, ramps, ladders, scaffoldings, and, on the ground, unprotected areas of holes and pits. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has non-exertional mental limitations which affect her ability to concentrate upon complex or detailed tasks, but she would remain capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple job instructions, making work-related judgments and decisions, responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers and work situations, and dealing with changes in a routine work setting. The ALJ finally noted that Plaintiff uses a cane to ambulate but that it is not necessary for her to use it at a workstation. (Tr. 32.)

         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. 36.)

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a data entry clerk. (Tr. 39.) Given Plaintiff's background and RFC, the vocational expert testified that Plaintiff could also perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an addresser, a call out operator, and a surveillance system monitor. (Tr. 40-41.) Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 41.)


         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 a Listing; 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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