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Whited v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 10, 2017




         In this social security appeal, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas B. Smith recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision granting Plaintiff a partially favorable decision on her claim for disability benefits. (Doc. 18.) Plaintiff objects to the Report and Recommendation. (Doc. 19.) For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed, and the Report and Recommendation is due to be adopted.

         I. Procedural History

         On March 15, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for social security disability benefits, alleging an onset date of February 29, 2012. (Doc. 9-5, pp. 5-17.) The Commissioner initially denied Plaintiff's claim on August 9, 2012, and then upon reconsideration on December 18, 2012. (Doc. 9-4, pp. 5-16.) Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 20-22, 38; Doc. 9-2, pp. 31-63.) On August 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding that Plaintiff was disabled from February 29, 2012 through October 3, 2013 (“Disability Period”), but that her disability ceased as of October 4, 2013, when medical improvement occurred. (Doc. 9-2, pp. 10-26.) After the administrative Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision (Doc. 9-2, pp. 2-4), Plaintiff appealed to this Court. (Doc. 1.) On February 8, 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas B. Smith issued a Report recommending that the Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 18 (“R&R”).) Plaintiff objects. (Doc. 19 (“Objection”).) The matter is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         II. Standard of Review

          A. Report and Recommendations

         When a party objects to a magistrate judge's findings, the district court must “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report . . . to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id. The district court must consider the record and factual issues based on the record independent of the magistrate judge's report. Ernest S. ex rel. Jeffrey S. v. State Bd. of Educ., 896 F.2d 507, 513 (11th Cir. 1990).

         B. Social Security Appeals

         In social security appeals, a reviewing court “must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. In conducting such review, a court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [the reviewing court] must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         III. Discussion

         In this appeal, Plaintiff does not challenge the favorable decision regarding her disability and right to receive benefits. She only challenges the ALJ's finding that her disability ceased on October 3, 2013. (See Doc. 14, p. 1.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) finding that she experienced medical improvement in her condition as of October 4, 2013; and (2) applying the incorrect legal standards to her testimony. (Id. at 10-14, 18-20.) The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. Medical Improvement

         At the administrative level, an ALJ applies a five-step, sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178. In particular, the ALJ must evaluate:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.


         If the ALJ determines that the claimant is disabled, the ALJ must also determine if the claimant's disability continued through the date of the decision, or whether medical improvement has occurred. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994. Medical improvement is defined as “any decrease in the medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that [the claimant was] disabled or continued to be disabled.” 20 C.F.R. ...

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