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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 16, 2017

CLEVELAND B. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MAC R. MCCOY UNITED STATE MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Cleveland Williams' Amended Complaint (Doc. 14) filed on May 18, 2016. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his claim for 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).

         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 his 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 January 7, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Tr. at 90, 155-160). Plaintiff asserted an onset date of August 30, 2012. (Id. at 155). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on March 7, 2013, and on reconsideration on April 29, 2013. (Id. at 90, 98). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Denise Pasvantis on January 23, 2015. (Id. at 29-56). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 14, 2015. (Tr. at 12-21). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability since January 7, 2013, the date the application was filed. (Id. at 20).

         On January 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1-7). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in the United States District Court on March 25, 2016 and an Amended Complaint (Doc. 7) On April 4, 2016. This case is ripe for review. The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 29).

         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 he 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 his 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 at step one of the sequential evaluation, Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 7, 2013, the application date. (Tr. at 14). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of anatomic deformity at ¶ 5-S1 and mild lumbar scoliosis (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c)). (Id.). 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. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). (Tr. at 15). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight[-]hour workday; sit for a total of six hours in an eight[-]hour workday; push and/or pull unlimited, other than as shown for lift and/or carry; and frequently climb ramps and stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds.

(Id.). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 19). After consider 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. (Id.). These jobs include cleaner, laundry worker, and warehouse worker. (Id. at 20). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from January 7, 2013, the application date. (Id.).

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

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Plaintiff raises four issues. As stated by Plaintiff, they are:

1) Whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) properly assessed the Plaintiff's RFC given that she failed to include as severe impairments or even as medically determinable impairments the Plaintiff's chronic headaches, right leg and knee pain, back pain, dizziness, and pterygium; given that she did not address findings of the State agency indicating that the Plaintiff could not perform the full range of even sedentary work; given that she did not include as severe impairments chronic low back pain, right leg pain, and status-post back and right leg fractures secondary to a motor vehicle accident as a pedestrian at the age of seven, which were conclusively determined as severe in a prior binding decision; and given that she did not consider whether such impairments together with the Plaintiff's acknowledged severe limitations would combine to preclude Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA).
2) Whether the ALJ erred in not obtaining a Psychiatric Review Technique Form (PRTF) and conducting a Mental Residual Function Capacity (MRFC) assessment given there is evidence in the record of Plaintiff's difficulties with insight, attention/concentration, and stress.
3) Whether the Acting Commissioner met her burden of showing that there is a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform given that the ALJ failed to include any limitations related to the Plaintiff's chronic headaches, right leg and knee pain, back pain, dizziness, and pterygium in the hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”) and given that in order for the VE's testimony to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ was required to pose a hypothetical question, which comprised all of the Plaintiff's limitations.
4) Whether the ALJ erred in not considering that Plaintiff implicitly requested reopening the SSI case filed by the Plaintiff on December 9, 2010, given that the new application on January 7, 2013, was less than two years after the Initial Determination on that prior application on February 4, 2011, and given that good cause was shown by the furnishing of new and material evidence relevant to the time period covered by that prior application.

(Doc. 35 at 1-2). The Court will address each issue in turn.

         A. RFC Determination

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in dismissing Plaintiff's chronic headaches, right leg and knee pain, and dizziness. (Id. at 9). Further, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to mention Plaintiff's right eye pterygium (dry eye) and chronic back pain. (Id. at 9-10). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in failing to order a neurological workup for Plaintiff's dizziness and failed to include all of Plaintiff's limitations in the RFC. (Id. at 11). Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to address a State Agency finding that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work and, thus, made an implicit determination that Plaintiff's RFC was for less than a full range of sedentary work. (Id. at 11-12). In addition, Plaintiff argues that a prior decision by Administrative Law Judge Steven Slahta decided on September 4, 2008 “conclusively determined” that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of chronic low back pain, right leg pain, and status-post back and right leg fractures secondary to a motor vehicle accident as a pedestrian at the age seven. (Id. at 12). Plaintiff contends these findings are binding on the ALJ here. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision demonstrates bias as to Plaintiff's failure to look for work. (Id. at 13). The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination. (Doc. 37 at 4). The Court will discuss each issue raised by Plaintiff as to the ALJ's RFC determination in turn.

         1. Consideration of Impairments

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's chronic headaches, right leg and knee pain, and dizziness and failed to mention or address Plaintiff's right eye pterygium and chronic back pain. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ did not find that Plaintiff's headaches, leg pain, knee pain, pack pain, dizziness, and eye pterygium to be severe impairments and found no evidence in the record to support the claim that these impairments caused functional limitations. (Doc. 37 at 5). Further, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ specifically found that Plaintiff's complaints for right leg and knee ...


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