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Figueroa-Padilla v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 29, 2017




         Plaintiff Ricardo Figueroa-Padilla appeals to this Court from a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§416, 423. After due consideration, the Commissioner's final decision is reversed and this case is remanded.


         On March 9, 2015, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability arising from a variety of impairments, including, among other things, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), lumbar fusion, chronic tinnitus bilateral, GERD, hypertension, and obstructive sleep apnea (Tr. 139-144, 192). He was 36 years old on his July 31, 2014 alleged disability onset date, with past relevant work experience as a logistics specialist in the United States Army (Tr. 184, 193). His claims were denied at the initial level (Tr. 78-80) and he asked for reconsideration which was denied on July 1, 2015 (Tr.81-82, 85-89). At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 90-91, 32-60). Plaintiff was not represented by counsel or other representative at the administrative hearing (Tr. 34). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 4, 2016 (Tr. 12-31). On September 7, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's petition for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-4). Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision and this appeal timely followed (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies and his case is ripe for review.

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process which appears at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1240 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 n.10.

         Here, the ALJ performed the required sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date (Tr. 17).[1] At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of PTSD; anxiety; depression; headaches; hypertension; sleep apnea; and degenerative disc disease status post (s/p) spinal fusion with history of chronic back pain (20 CFR 404.1520(c)) (Tr. 17). At step three, the ALJ found that 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.18). Next, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b)

with no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; no more than occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, kneeling, or balancing; no exposure to work hazards; and, the ability to change positions at will approximately every fifteen to thirty minutes and perform his duties from both a seated and standing position. He is also limited to simple, routine tasks that require no exposure to the general public.

(Tr. 19).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. 25). Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined at step five that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform (Tr. 25-26). Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from his alleged onset date through the date of the decision (Tr. 27).

         Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). Findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). When the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence the district court will affirm even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the reviewer finds that the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The district court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner.]” Id. "The district court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision." Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings).


         The ALJ's Treatment of the VA's ...

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