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Jeppesen v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 8, 2017

LESLIE JEPPESEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MAC R. MCCOY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This cause is before the Court on Plaintiff Leslie Jeppesen's Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on December 11, 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 IN PART and REVERSED AND REMANDED IN PART pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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. §§ 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)(B); 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

         Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income asserting an onset date of August 25, 2010. (Tr. at 32). Plaintiff's disability insurance benefits application was denied initially on October 3, 2011, and on reconsideration on November 22, 2011. (Tr. at 121-22). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) M. Dwight Evans on March 20, 2014. (Tr. at 50-101). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 17, 2014. (Tr. at 29-49). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability from August 25, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 43).

         On October 26, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 1-7). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in the United States District Court on December 11, 2015. Defendant filed an Answer (Doc. 12) on February 18, 2016. Both parties filed memoranda in support of their positions. (Docs. 23-24). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 16). 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)).[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 past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work of the sort found in the national economy. Packer, 542 F. App'x at 891 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 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 March 31, 2015. (Tr. at 34). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 25, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 34). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: cerebrovascular accident, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and degenerative joint disease. (Tr. at 34). 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 36).

         After review of the record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except claimant is limited to only occasional work in close proximity to moving mechanical parts.” (Tr. at 36).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a telemarketer and appointment clerk, finding that this work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. (Tr. at 42). Specifically, the ALJ stated that “the vocational expert testified that the claimant has past work as a Telemarketer, DOT #299.357-014, which is performed at the sedentary exertional level and has an SVP of 3; and Appointment Clerk, DOT #237.367-010, which is performed at the sedentary exertional level and has an SVP of 3.” (Tr. at 42).[2] The ALJ stated that “[t]he vocational expert testified that a hypothetical individual with the above RFC would be able to perform the jobs of both telemarketer and appointment clerk.” (Tr. at 42). Accordingly, in comparing the Plaintiff's RFC with the physical and mental demands of this work, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform it as generally performed. (Tr. at 42).

         Because the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work, the ALJ did not proceed to make findings for step five. (See Tr. at 42-43). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from August 25, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 43).

         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 Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         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 the 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) (holding the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine reasonableness of factual findings).

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiff argues three ...


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