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Gonzalez v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

February 7, 2017

PAULA GONZALEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MAC R. MCCOY, UNTIED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Paula Gonzalez's Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on October 16, 2015. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. The Commissioner filed the Transcript of the proceedings (hereinafter referred to as “Tr.” followed by the appropriate page number), and the parties filed legal memoranda in support of their positions. For the reasons set out herein, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED AND REMANDED pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Social Security Act Eligibility, the ALJ Decision, and Standard of Review

         A. Eligibility

         The law defines disability as the inability to do 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. §§ 416(i), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. The impairment must be severe, making the claimant unable to do her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 - 404.1511, 416.905 - 416.911. Plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion through step four, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         B. Procedural History

         On October 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Tr. at 90, 91, 208-215). Plaintiff asserted an onset date of September 12, 2010. (Tr. at 208). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on December 17, 2012, and on reconsideration on May 30, 2013. (Tr. at 90, 91, 120, 121). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Donna Lefebvre on June 4, 2014. (Tr. at 41-69). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 15, 2014. (Tr. at 24-33). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability from September 12, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 33).

         On August 28, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 1-5). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in the United States District Court on October 16, 2015. This case is ripe for review. The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 19).

         C. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant has proven that she is disabled. Packer v. Comm'r of Social Security, 542 F. App'x 890, 891 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)).[1] An ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is performing substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform her past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work of the sort found in the national economy. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-40 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant has the burden of proof through step four and then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Hines-Sharp v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 511 F. App'x 913, 915 n.2 (11th Cir. 2013).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2015. (Tr. at 26). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 12, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 26). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease status post fusion; spasmodic torticollis; and left shoulder superior labrum from anterior to posterior (SLAP) tear. (Tr. at 26). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did 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, Subpt. P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (Tr. at 16-17). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of sedentary work with the following limitations:

frequently climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ladders or scaffolds; can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; cannot have concentrated exposure to extreme cold or excessive vibration; cannot operate moving or hazardous machinery; and cannot work around unprotected heights.

(Tr. at 29). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as an accounting clerk, finding that this work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. (Tr. at 32). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from September 12, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 33).

         D. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla; i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401).

         Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the reviewer finds that “the evidence preponderates against” the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); and Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560; accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (court must scrutinize the entire record to determine reasonableness of factual findings).

         II. ...


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