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Cook v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 13, 2017

ROBERT W. COOK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JULIE S. SNEED UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Robert W. Cook, seeks judicial review of the denial of his claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security insurance. As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and employed proper legal standards, the decision is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on June 16, 2009. (Tr. 284.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 84-87, 120-134.) Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 135.) Upon Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 1394-1430.) The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 96-113.) The Appeals Counsel granted a request for review by Plaintiff, and Plaintiff had a supplemental hearing. (Tr. 41-83, 114-118.) Following the supplemental hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 14-33.) Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. 1-4.) Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court. (Dkt. 1.) The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1978, claimed disability beginning on April 14, 2009, and later amended the alleged disability onset date to June 7, 2009. (Tr. 254-259, 284, 1398.) Plaintiff has a high school education. (Tr. 1397.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work as a sales delivery supervisor, telemarketer, and assistant manager. (Tr. 31, 73-74.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to Crohn's disease, nerve damage to the left hand, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), osteopenia of the spine, worn out patella femoral groove, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, suicidal thoughts, and depression. (Tr. 289.)

         In rendering the decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not performed substantial gainful activity since April 14, 2009. (Tr. 17.) After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: disorders of the spine, history of right foot heel spurs, neuroma, history of right knee trauma, Crohn's disease, bipolar disorder, PTSD, borderline personality traits, polysubstance abuse in full-sustained remission, and obesity. (Tr. 17.) Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 18.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except he has the frequent ability for postural activities of climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolds, stairs, and ramps as well as crouching, crawling, and stooping. (Tr. 20.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff can understand, carryout, and remember simple instructions that do not involve assembly line pace or production quota with only occasional interaction with the general public (but not face to face), coworkers, and supervisors. (Tr. 20-21.) In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not fully credible. (Tr. 23.)

         Considering Plaintiff's noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 31.) Given Plaintiff's background and RFC, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a mail clerk, office helper, or bagger in the laundry/garment industry. (Tr. 32.) Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 33.)

         APPLICABLE STANDARDS

         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning that the claimant must be unable to engage in 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and, (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). While the court reviews the Commissioner's decision with deference to the factual findings, no such deference is given to the legal conclusions. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court may not decide the facts anew, re-weigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ, even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's failure to apply the correct law, or to give the reviewing court sufficient reasoning for determining that he or she has conducted the proper legal analysis, mandates reversal. Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066. The scope of review is thus limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002).

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision on the following grounds: (1) the ALJ's findings in the RFC assessment were not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion evidence; (3) the ALJ failed to fully develop the record; and (4) the ALJ erred in her reliance on the VE's testimony. For the reasons that follow, none of these contentions warrant reversal.

         A. The ALJ's RFC Assessment

         At step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and ability to perform past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The RFC is defined as the most a claimant “can still do despite [his] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). To determine a claimant's RFC, an ALJ makes an assessment based on all of the relevant evidence of record as to what a claimant can do in a work setting despite any physical, mental, or environmental limitations caused by the claimant's impairments and related symptoms. Id. § 404.1545(a)(1), (3). The ALJ will consider the limiting effects of all the claimant's impairments, even those that are not severe, in determining the RFC. Id. § 404.1545(e). Ultimately, the ALJ's RFC assessment need not be identical to a particular assessment of record or incorporate precise limitations set forth by a physician. See Id. § 404.1545(a)(3) (stating that all of the record evidence is considered in the RFC assessment). The final responsibility for deciding the RFC is reserved for the Commissioner. Id. § 404.1527(d)(2).

         Here, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work. Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds, and the ability to walk, stand, sit, push, and pull. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). As noted above, the ALJ provided additional limitations to Plaintiff's RFC, finding that he has the frequent ability to climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, stairs, and ramps as well as crouch, crawl, and stoop. (Tr. 20.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff can understand, carryout, and remember simple instructions that do not involve assembly line pace or production quota with only occasional interaction with the general public (but not face to face), coworkers, and supervisors. (Tr. 20-21.)

         1. Plaintiff's Knee Brace

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred in her assessment of Plaintiff's right knee brace. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to review the entire record and therefore failed to properly assess Plaintiff's RFC and his need for a knee brace. (Dkt. 19 at 7-8.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ incorrectly stated that the record does not reflect that Plaintiff was prescribed a knee brace. (Dkt. 19 at 7.) Plaintiff relies on an October 7, 2009, medical record from Bay Pines Veteran's Administration Medical Center (“V.A. Hospital”) noting that Plaintiff ...


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