United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division
ROBERT W. COOK, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
S. SNEED UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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).
Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision
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.)
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.)
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.)
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).
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. §
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).
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.
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.
The ALJ's RFC Assessment
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).
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.)
Plaintiff's Knee Brace
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 ...