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Hurst v. Berryhill

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

August 29, 2017

DEBORAH M. HURST, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]


         I. Status

         Deborah M. Hurst (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of mental impairments (including anxiety; depression; and post traumatic stress disorder), and physical impairments (including high blood pressure; muscle spasms and other problems with her back and spine; and problems with her right knee, right elbow, and right hand). See Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 13; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed June 22, 2016, at 78, 88, 175. On March 29, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset disability date of December 3, 2008. Tr. at 160-61. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, Tr. at 78-86, 87, 98-102, and on reconsideration, Tr. at 88-96, 97, 106-10.

         On February 13, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing at which the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 39-76. On June 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a Decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset disability date through the date last insured. Tr. at 12-22. Plaintiff then requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. at 7-8. The Appeals Council accepted additional evidence in the form of a brief authored by Plaintiff's counsel. Tr. at 4-5; see Tr. at 258-68 (brief). On December 3, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-3, making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On January 25, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff raises two issues on appeal. First, “[w]hether the ALJ erred in finding that [Plaintiff] had the residual functional capacity [(“RFC”)] to perform essentially all medium work except that [she] would be limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks, or unskilled work.” Memorandum in Opposition to the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 17; “Pl.'s Mem.”), filed August 17, 2016, at 13.[3] Second, “[w]hether the ALJ's determinations were based on substantial evidence.” Id. On November 21, 2016, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 20; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing the issues raised by Plaintiff. After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be affirmed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [4] an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (“Regulations”), determining as appropriate whether the claimant (1) is currently employed or engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in the Regulations; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 14-22. A t s t e p o n e, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of December 3, 2008 through her date last insured of September 30, 2010.” Tr. at 14 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that “[t]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post release[;] chondromalacia of medial compartment status post partial medial and lateral meniscectomy of the right knee; right medical epicondylitis status post surgery; affective disorder; and anxiety disorder.” Tr. at 14 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ ascertained that “[t]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 15 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that, “through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the [RFC] for medium work activity as defined in the regulations, 20 CFR [§] 404.15[6]7(c), except as follows: limited to the performance of simple, routine repetitive tasks, or unskilled work.” Tr. at 16 (emphasis omitted). At step four, relied on the testimony of the VE to find that “[t]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to perform any past relevant work” as an “electric motor winder.” Tr. at 20 (emphasis, italics, and citation omitted). At step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's age (“53 years old . . . on the date last insured”), education (“limited education and is able to communicate in English”), work experience, and RFC, and relied on the testimony of the VE to find that through the date last insured, Plaintiff was capable of performing work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. at 20-21 (some emphasis omitted). Namely, the ALJ identified representative jobs as “hand packager, ” “dining room attendant, ” and “laborer, stores.” Tr. at 21 (italics omitted). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was not under a disability . . . at any time from December 3, 2008, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2010, the date last insured.” Tr. at 22 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Although no deference is given to the ALJ's conclusions of law, findings of fact “are conclusive if . . . supported by ‘substantial evidence' . . . .” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). “Substantial evidence is something ‘more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987)). The substantial evidence standard is met when there is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Falge, 150 F.3d at 1322 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence; rather, the entire record is reviewed to determine whether “the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991) (internal quotation and citations omitted); see also McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in formulating the RFC and consequently rendered a Decision that is not supported by substantial evidence. See Pl.'s Mem. at 13-23. Within these broad contentions, Plaintiff focuses on the ALJ's assignment of medium work with additional restrictions; on the opinion of Homi Cooper, M.D., regarding the effects of Plaintiff's limitations; and on the ALJ's discrediting of Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain to the extent that the complaints are inconsistent with the RFC determination. See id.

         The RFC assessment “is the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his or her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). It is used at step four to determine whether a claimant can return to his or her past relevant work, and if necessary, it is also used at step five to determine whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(5). In assessing a claimant's RFC, the ALJ “must consider limitations and restrictions imposed by all of an individual's impairments, even those that are not ‘severe.'” SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 at *5; see also Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 226 (11th ...

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