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Fernandez v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 30, 2017




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff’s appeal of an administrative decision denying his applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Plaintiff alleges he became disabled on October 7, 2011. Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. A hearing was held before the initially assigned Administrative Law Judge on February 27, 2014, at which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (Tr. 27-47.) The Administrative Law Judge who held the hearing retired before rendering a decision and before approving a draft decision. The Commissioner then reassigned the matter to another Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who reviewed the hearing transcript and the record, and who found Plaintiff not disabled from October 7, 2011 through July 8, 2014, the date of the decision. (Tr. 12-20.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner’s decision that he was not disabled during the relevant time period. Plaintiff has exhausted his available administrative remedies and the case is properly before the Court. The undersigned has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner’s decision is due to be REVERSED AND REMANDED.

         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court’s review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). Where 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 evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The district court must view the evidence 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); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues two issues on appeal. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in not conducting a second hearing in light of the policies as set forth in the Social Security Administration’s Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Manual, HALLEX I-2-8-40. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy by relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”) without testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). The undersigned agrees with Plaintiff with respect to his second contention and thus determines that remand is warranted without addressing the first issue raised on appeal.

         A. The ALJ’s Decision

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) from October 7, 2011 to December 31, 2012, and was not disabled during that time period. (Tr. 14.) However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments during the time period that he did not engage in SGA, including disorders of the spine, osteoarthritis of the right knee, and a learning disorder. (Tr. 15.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equals the severity of the listings. (Tr. 15-17.) Continuing on with the evaluation, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined by the Regulations, except that “he can only occasionally climb ramp and stairs, stoop, bend, kneel, crouch and crawl; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and can frequently balance; he should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and hazards. He is limited to simple tasks.” (Tr. 17.)

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work, but that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Tr. 19.) In making this determination, the ALJ relied on the Grids in lieu of VE testimony. Specifically, the ALJ provided the following discussion:

If the claimant had the [RFC] to perform the full range of light work, considering the claimant’s age, education, and work experience, a finding of “not disabled” would be directed by Medical-Vocational Rule 202.11. However, the additional limitations have little to no effect on the occupational base of unskilled light work. A finding of “not disabled” is therefore appropriate under the framework of this rule.
Social Security Ruling 83-10 states that the occupational base underlying the [Grids] consists of numerous “unskilled” occupations existing at various exertional levels. 20 CFR 404.1568(a) and 416.968(a) define “unskilled” work as consisting of “simple duties,” i.e., “duties that can be learned on the job in a short period of time” and which require “little or no judgment.” Therefore, an individual (like the claimant) who is able to perform “simple duties” is obviously able to perform “unskilled” work, and the [Grids] dictate that significant numbers of unskilled jobs exist in the national economy that such a person can perform.

(Tr. 20.)

         B. The ALJ ...

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