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Rojas v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 17, 2017

MARGARET ROJAS, 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 Margaret Rojas' Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on March 9, 2011. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and a period of disability. 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 REVERSED AND REMANDED 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

         On December 6, 2005, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of July 2, 1992. (Tr. at 55, 284). Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to October 1, 1996. (Tr. at 15). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on March 24, 2006 and on reconsideration on May 21, 2008. (Tr. at 55-56). Plaintiff sought review of those determinations. After conducting a hearing, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Jimmy N. Coffman issued an unfavorable decision on April 15, 2009. (Tr. at 136-44). On January 21, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 152-55). On March 9, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1). On June 29, 2011, the Honorable John E. Steele granted Defendant's Opposed Motion to Remand. (Doc. 17 at 3). The Court remanded the case pursuant to Sentence Six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in order to take all steps necessary to properly prepare the administrative record in this case. (Id.).

         On remand, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. at 159-161). After a hearing, ALJ Larry J. Butler issued an unfavorable decision on August 25, 2011. (Tr. at 57-69). On August 7, 2012, the Appeals Council assumed jurisdiction of the case and remanded the case for further review. (Tr. at 70-74). After another hearing, ALJ Butler issued an additional unfavorable decision on April 22, 2014. (Tr. at 76-89). On February 23, 2015, the Appeals Council again assumed jurisdiction and remanded the case for further review. (Tr. at 90-95). After a further hearing, ALJ T. Whitaker issued an unfavorable decision on March 16, 2016. (Tr. at 11-32). Plaintiff subsequently exhausted her administrative remedies. (Doc. 36 at 3; Doc. 38 at 2).

         Defendant filed an Answer (Doc. 24), the Transcript (Doc. 25), and an unopposed motion to reopen the case (Doc. 26) on June 20, 2016. The case was reopened on June 22, 2016. (Doc. 27). The parties filed Memoranda. (Docs. 36, 38). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 33). 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) 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 first found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements on March 31, 1998. (Tr. at 17). As a result, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff must have established disability on or before this date to be entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Tr. at 15). Plaintiff's alleged onset date is October 1, 1996. (Tr. at 15). Thus, the relevant time period for evaluating Plaintiff's claims is October 1, 1996 to March 31, 1998.

         At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of October 1, 1996 to March 31, 1998, the date last insured. (Tr. at 17).

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments through the date last insured: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, history of major depressive disorder, depression, and anxiety.” (Tr. at 17).

         Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a number of severe impairments, which the evidence showed were severe after the date last insured but for which there was not a persuasive evidentiary basis to reasonably infer that the impairments were medically determinable and severe during the relevant period. (Tr. at 17). These impairments include:

chronic gastritis, chronic epigastric pain and dyspepsia, facet syndrome, TLS nerve entrapment and muscle spasm, fatigue, chronic back pain, radiculopathy, a history of cervical, thoracic, and lumbar strain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), menopausal syndrome, GERD, a history of low grade gastritis, a history of gastritis secondary to H. Pylori, a history of fibroid, gallstones with cholelithiasis, chronic pain disorder associated with psychological factors, SI joint dysfunction, a history of myofascial pain, undeclared connective tissue disorder/fibromyalgia/myofascial pain, polyarthralgia of unclear etiology, hyperprolactinemia, headaches, sicca complex, fibromyalgia, iron deficiency anemia, premenstrual syndrome, chronic back pain syndrome, avoidant and dependent personality disorder, adjustment disorder with anxiety, and allergies.

(Tr. at 17-18).

         Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's history of intestinal dysbiosis, urinary tract infection, and leukocytosis were considered non-severe as at all times. (Tr. at 18).

         Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's alleged rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, cervical facet syndrome accompanied by myofascitis and trigger points, cervical cranial syndrome, cervicalgia, lumber facet syndrome accompanied by myofascitis and trigger point formation, radiculitis, and sciatica were non-medically determinable. (Tr. at 18).

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments through the date last insured 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 CFR §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). (Tr. at 18). The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.02, 1.04, 12.04, and 12.06. (Tr. at 18-20).

         Based on the evidence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “less than the full range of medium work” through the date last insured. (Tr. at 20). Specifically, the ALJ found that:

the claimant could have lifted, carried, pushed, or pulled 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. Claimant could have sat, stood, or walked each for five hours in an eight-hour workday. Claimant was limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work with “simple” defined as unskilled work tasks. Claimant was limited to work that would have allowed the claimant to be off task five percent of the workday in addition to regularly scheduled breaks. Claimant was limited to a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements. Claimant was limited to work with only occasional workplace changes.

(Tr. at 20).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 30).

         At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed through the date last insured. (Tr. at 30). Specifically, the ALJ noted that if Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the full range of medium work, a finding of “not disabled” would be directed by Medical-Vocational Rule 203.29. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ further noted, however, that Plaintiff's “ability to perform all or substantially all of the requirements of this level of work was impeded by additional limitations.” (Tr. at 31). As a result, the ALJ asked questions to a vocational expert (“VE”) to determine the extent to which these additional limitations erode the unskilled medium occupational base, through the date last insured. (Tr. at 31). The VE testified that an individual with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as:

1. Transporter (Patient), DOT #355.677-014, which is performed at the medium exertional level, has an SVP of 2, and of which there are 98, 980 jobs in the national economy;
2. Self-Service Laundry Dry Cleaning Attendant, DOT #369.677-010, which is performed at the medium exertional level, has an SVP of 2, and of which there are 437, 610 jobs in the national economy;
3. Stock Checker (Apparel), DOT #299.667-014, which is performed at the light exertional level, has an SVP of 2, and of which there are 88, 830 jobs in the national economy;
4. Office Helper, DOT #239.567-010, which is performed at the light exertional level, has an SVP of 2, and of which there are 71, ...

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