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Eachus v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

September 5, 2017

SUSAN EACHUS, o/b/o Barry Kevin Thompson (deceased), Plaintiff,



         Before the Court is the Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on May 25, 2016. Counsel for the original Plaintiff Barry Kevin Thompson filed a Suggestion of Death and a Motion for Substitution of Parties (Doc. 23) on May 30, 2017. The Court allowed the requested substitution. (See Doc. 24). For purposes of this Opinion and Order, the Court will refer to Susan Eachus as “Plaintiff” and Barry Kevin Thompson as “Claimant.”[1]

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying a claim for disability and disability insurance benefits. Even though the parties failed to address the issue of whether all of the claims in this action survive the death of Mr. Thompson, the Court must consider whether all of the claims raised survive Mr. Thompson's death. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25. The Court finds that a claim for disability insurance benefits survives the death of the claimant. See Fowler v. Astrue, No. 809- CV-1368T-27MAP, 2010 WL 454765, at *1 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 9, 2010). Thus, Plaintiff may proceed on her claim for disability insurance benefits.

         Plaintiff also asserts a claim under supplemental security income. (See Doc. 19 at 1). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(b)(1)(A), generally a claimant's claim for supplemental security income extinguishes upon a claimant's death. See also 20 C.F.R. § 416.542(b)(1)-(4) (no benefits under supplemental security income may be paid to an estate of a deceased claimant unless to a surviving eligible spouse or eligible parent of a disabled or blind child). In this case, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income does not survive Mr. Thompson's death. Thus, the only remaining claim relates to judicial review of the Commissioner's decision as to disability and disability insurance benefits.

         The Commissioner filed the Transcript of the proceedings (hereinafter referred to as “Tr.” followed by the appropriate page number), and the parties filed legal memoranda in support of their positions. For the reasons set forth herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Social Security Act Eligibility, the ALJ Decision, and Standard of Review

         A. Eligibility

          The law defines disability as the inability to do 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. §§ 416(i), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. The impairment must be severe, making the claimant unable to do his previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 - 404.1511, 416.905 - 416.911. Plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion through step four, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         B. Procedural History

         On May 24, 2011, Claimant filed an application for disability and for supplemental security income, asserting an onset date of August 14, 2010. (Tr. at 81, 82, 238-46). Claimant's applications were denied initially on August 2, 2011, and on reconsideration on September 14, 2011. (Id. at 81, 82, 103, 104). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Larry J. Butler on September 16, 2013. (Id. at 35-80). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 19, 2014. (Id. at 13-26). The ALJ found Claimant not to be under a disability from August 14, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 13).

         On April 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (Id. at 1-6). Claimant filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in the United States District Court on May 25, 2016. This case is ripe for review.

         C. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant has proven that he is disabled. Packer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 542 F.App'x 890, 891 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)).[2] An ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is performing substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform his past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work of the sort found in the national economy. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-40 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant has the burden of proof through step four and then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Hines-Sharp v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 511 F.App'x 913, 915 n.2 (11th Cir. 2013).

         The ALJ found that Claimant met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2013. (Tr. at 15). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 14, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments:

degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post fusion surgery; status post remote cervical fusion in 1996; thoracic degenerative disease; and isolated seizures possibly related to alcohol abuse (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).

(Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (Tr. at 18). At step four, the ALJ determined that Claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a wide range of light work as follows:

the claimant can lift and carry, and push and pull, 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for 6 hours, and can stand and/or walk for 6 hours, over the course of an 8-hour workday. The claimant can frequently climb ramps and stairs but can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, and even moderate exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. The claimant has no manipulative, visual or communicative limitations, and no mental job-related limitations.

(Id.). The ALJ determined that Claimant was not capable of performing his past relevant work as an aluminum/metal fabricator and installer. (Id. at 24). After considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform. (Id.). The ALJ concluded that Claimant was not under a disability from August 14, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 25).

         D. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla; i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401).

         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, 67 F.3d at 1560; accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (court must scrutinize the entire record to determine reasonableness of factual findings).

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Plaintiff raises three (3) issues. As stated by Plaintiff, they are:

1) The ALJ committed reversible error by failing to provide a legally sufficient basis for rejecting the opinions of [Claimant's] treating pain physicians, in violation of SSR 96-2p; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d).
2) The ALJ committed harmful error when he found [Claimant's] mental impairment was non-severe and trivial within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. ...

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