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Ruiz v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 9, 2017

DIANA RUIZ, Plaintiff,


          THOMAS B. SMITH United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of an adverse final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration regarding her claim for disability insurance benefits. Based upon a review of the administrative record and the pleadings and joint memorandum submitted by the parties, and for the reasons that follow, I respectfully recommend that the Commissioner's final decision be affirmed, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff holds a bachelor's degree in sociology and has performed past relevant work as a senior secretary, customer service clerk and billing clerk (Doc. 15 at 3). On August 9, 2012, she protectively filed an application for disability benefits alleging an April 15, 2011 onset date (Id., at 1). She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to August 19, 2012 (Tr. 152). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested an administrative hearing which was held on December 9, 2014 (Tr. 29-53, 54-81). On February 12, 2015 the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits (Tr. 9-26). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied by order dated June 10, 2016 (Tr. 1-4). Thus, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision and this appeal timely followed (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and her case is ripe for review.

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration and codified in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4). Specifically, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1240 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 n.10.

         The ALJ determined at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (Tr. 14) At step two, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff was severely impaired by a disorder of the spine (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)) (Id.). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526) (Tr. 16). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with certain limitations (Tr. 17). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a senior secretary, customer service clerk[2] and billing clerk and therefore, she was not disabled (Tr. 21).

         Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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 but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted).

         When 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 preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The district court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner.]” Id. "The district court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision." Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings).

         There is a presumption in favor of the ALJ's findings of fact, but the presumption does not attach to the ALJ's conclusions of law. Welch v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 436, 438 (11th Cir. 1988) (per curiam). The Court will reverse a final decision if the ALJ incorrectly applied the law or failed to provide sufficient reasoning for the Court to determine whether the ALJ properly applied the law. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1992).


         Plaintiff went to a hospital emergency room on August 19, 2012, complaining of lumbar back pain that radiated to her calf (Tr. 259). A computerized tomography scan revealed degenerative changes to her lumbar spine with mild to moderate spinal canal stenosis at ¶ 3-L4 (Tr. 264). She underwent a magnetic resonance imaging scan which revealed a large posterior disc extrusion at the L3-L4 level, which in combination with disc bulging and facet hypertrophy bilaterally resulted in severe narrowing of the central spinal canal and bilateral peripheral spinal canals and neural foramina (Tr. 313). A radiologist noted a near occlusion of the central spinal canal and severe narrowing at the L4-L5 level resulting from degenerative disc and joint disease (Id.). The impression was acute cauda equine syndrome, [3] herniated nucleus pulposus L3-L4, sever spinal stenosis L3-L4 with radiculopathy and urinary retention (Tr. 274). Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for emergency laminectomy decompression (Id.). Dr. Stephane Lavoie performed an L3-L4 laminectomy, discectomy and decompression L3-L4 on August 21, 2012 (Tr. 216).

         Dr. Lavoie next saw Plaintiff in his office on September 6, 2012 (Tr. 213). He reported that she was mainly using a wheelchair to get around and that he explained to her that it would “be a very slow process.” (Id.). On September 27, 2012, Dr. Lavoie evaluated Plaintiff and concluded that she would benefit from skilled physical therapy treatment (Tr. 226). The doctor's October 4, 2012 treatment notes report improvement and that while Plaintiff continued to use “mainly a wheelchair to get around, ” she was “walking significantly better now.” (Tr. 210). The next time Dr. Lavoie saw Plaintiff was on October 19, 2012 (Tr. 224). As of that date, she had attended ten physical therapy sessions and was “making good gains.” (Id.). On November 14, 2012, Dr. Lavoie examined Plaintiff, reported that she had attended eighteen physical therapy sessions, and was progressing as expected (Tr. 221, 223). The next day, Dr. Lavoie observed that Plaintiff was “walking significantly better now, ” and that she was “beginning to ambulate quite well.” (Tr. 208). The doctor saw ...

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