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Hitchins v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 7, 2017

ELICE HITCHINS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MAC R. MCCOY JUDGE

         This cause is before the Court on Plaintiff Elice Hitchens' Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on December 23, 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 AFFIRMED pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         I. Social Security Act Eligibility, the ALJ's 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. § 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. §§ 416.905 - 416.911.

         B. Procedural History

         On May 25, 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income asserting an onset date of July 5, 2010. (Tr. at 154, 163). Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to March 28, 2011. (See Tr. at 12, 300). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on June 24, 2011 (Tr. at 83), and upon reconsideration on October 6, 2011 (Tr. at 102-03). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Larry J. Butler on October 28, 2013. (Tr. at 30-67). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 12, 2014. (Tr. at 9-29). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability from March 28, 2011, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 25).

         On December 3, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 1-7). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in this Court on December 23, 2015. Defendant filed an Answer (Doc. 15) on March 10, 2016. The parties filed Memoranda in support. (Docs. 20-21, 24). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 19). This case is ripe for review.

         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 Soc. Sec., 542 F. App'x 890, 891 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)).[2] 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) has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to 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 17). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 28, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 17). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: post-spinal fusion syndrome, right hip tendinosis, chronic post-operative pain, and chronic opioid use. (Tr. at 17). 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, Subpart. P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (Tr. at 21).

         Based on the evidence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). (Tr. at 21). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 24).

         At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Tr. at 24). Specifically, based on his finding that Plaintiff can perform light work, the ALJ determined that a finding of “not disabled” was appropriate under the framework of Medical-Vocational Rule 202.21. (Tr. at 24). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from March 28, 2011, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 25).

         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); 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) (stating that the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine reasonableness of factual findings).

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Plaintiff raises four issues:

(1) The [RFC] assessment is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to account for Plaintiff's nonexertional limitations and need for a handheld assistive device in violation of ...

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