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Nieves v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 14, 2017




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


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on June 22, 2012. (Tr. 20, 185-92.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 67-122, 124-34, 138-47.) Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 148-50.) Upon Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 47-66.) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 17-35.) Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. 1-5, 14-16.) 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 1971, claimed disability beginning on May 1, 2012. (Tr. 52, 67.) Plaintiff has a high school education and a technical degree. (Tr. 29, 52.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work as a respiratory therapist. (Tr. 28.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, and back pain. (Tr. 67.)

         In rendering the decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not performed substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 22.) After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 22.) 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. 23.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. She can stand or walk six hours per eight-hour workday and sit six hours per workday, with unlimited pushing and pulling. The claimant has no manipulative, visual, communicative, postural or environmental limitations. She has some limitations with social functioning, but can respond appropriately to supervision, adapt to a work setting, and interact appropriately with coworkers, supervisors and the general public. The claimant has some limitations with attention and concentration which would limit pace and persistence occasionally, but not at a level that would significantly reduce productivity. She can hear, understand, learn, remember and carry out detailed work instructions, make work decisions, and can sustain attention/concentration sufficient to complete an eight-hour workday and five-day work-week. The claimant can use public transportation, be aware of common hazards in the workplace, and take appropriate precautions.

(Tr. 25.) 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 her symptoms were not fully credible. (Tr. 26.)

         Applying Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”), Rule 203.29, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 29.)


         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 (“Listing”); 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 ...

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