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Sugarman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

October 27, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the Parties' Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff SCOTT SUGARMAN (“Plaintiff” or “Sugarman) filed his Motion on June 24, 2017 [D.E. 25]; Defendant NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) filed her Motion on August 23, 2017 [D.E. 29] and Responded in Opposition to Plaintiff that same day. [D.E. 30].[1] The issues before this Court are whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the denial of benefits to Plaintiff and whether the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. Upon a review of the filings, the record in this case and the relevant authorities, we hereby find that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment be GRANTED, Plaintiff's Motion be DENIED, and the administrative decision below be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 27, 2011, Plaintiff applied for Social Security benefits, alleging a disability onset date of January 3, 2011. The Social Security Administration denied the application on May 11, 2011. [D.E. 19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19, p. 149]. He sought reconsideration of that decision on June 22, 2011, which was once again denied on September 6, 2011. Id., p. 168. After requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) following this second denial, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ M. Hart on November 7, 2012. Also present at the hearing were Plaintiff's counsel and vocational expert Ted Mitchell.

         Plaintiff was 44 years old at the time the hearing took place. Id., p. 35. He attended school until the seventh grade but never obtained a GED. When asked to describe his condition and symptoms, Sugarman claimed that he has difficulty performing regular, day-to-day functions because he becomes dizzy, fatigued and confused. Id., p. 53. He also described feelings of paranoia, memory loss, anxiety and sensitivity to sounds and light that he battles on a daily basis. Id., p. 53, 55. Plaintiff also discussed ongoing problems related to carpal tunnel syndrome and tinnitus, which requires treatment with a speech and hearing specialist. Id., p. 60-61

         In terms of prior job history, Sugarman worked as a pool cleaner, groundskeeper, maintenance worker, and parking lot attendant prior to the initiation of his disability claim. Id., pp. 48-51. He testified that he had not worked since January 2011 and that he experiences his symptoms when he sits and stands during working hours. Id., p. 52. Plaintiff told the ALJ that he believes his conditions stem from Lyme disease. Id.

         Plaintiff also testified as to the limitations that allegedly arise from his claimed mental and physical conditions, testifying that he has issues bending over and lifting things off the ground. Id., p. 69. He stated he could not lift any weight with regularity, and that he often need to lay on his back throughout the day to relax and correct his equilibrium. Id., p. 71. Sugarman indicated that his dizziness prevents him from standing for longer than 10 minutes at a time, and that he cannot walk more than five minutes before becoming exhausted. Id., p. 72. He does not use a cane or other walking device to assist himself throughout the day. Id.

         At home, Plaintiff stated that he tries to rest most of the day due to his conditions. Id., p. 75. He lives with his significant other, who assists him throughout the house and helps him tie his shoes, buy groceries, and clean laundry. Id., pp. 79-81. He admitted he is able to help with certain chores around the house, and tries to help his significant other clean dishes and load laundry. Id. He also claims that he has difficulty being amongst large groups of people, as the noises aggravate his hearing issues. Id., p. 73.

         The ALJ examined the vocational expert (“VE”) after Plaintiff testified.[2] The ALJ presented the VE with a hypothetical, asking if a claimant with the same age, education, and work experience as Plaintiff could return to his past relevant work if such work was “limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements involving only simple work-related decisions and routine work place changes.” Id., p. 103. The VE answered in the negative. Id., p. 104. The VE further explained, however, that there were jobs in the national economy that a hypothetical individual with the same limitations as Plaintiff could perform: marker, order caller, and cleaner/housekeeper. Id. The VE provided additional details, stating that each position was considered a “light” exertion position as defined by the Social Security regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567, and required a Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”) level of 2.

         On December 31, 2012, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits and found that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. [D.E. 19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19, pp. 25-37]. In denying these claims, the ALJ applied the sequential evaluation process used in evaluating such claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 416.920. This process requires the ALJ to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant: (1) is working; (2) has one or more severe impairments, as defined in the regulations; (3) has one or more impairments that meet or medically equals an impairment listed in the regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“listed impairments”); (4) can return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether she can perform other work that exists in the national economy.[3]

         The ALJ first found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date he claims he became disabled. The ALJ proceeded to the second step and determined that Sugarman had the following severe impairments: “history of borderline intellectual functioning (BIF), rule out psychotic disorder, mood disorder, tinnitus with mild mixed hearing loss and Eustachian tube dysfunction, possible Lyme disease, history of depression, arthralgia, left wrist carpal tunnel syndrome, and history of anxiety with panic attacks.” [D.E. 19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19, p. 27].

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments defined by Social Security regulations. Moving to step four, the ALJ considered the entire record and assessed Sugarman's residual functional capacity, finding Plaintiff able to “perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), ” with certain limitations. Id. Those limitations included Plaintiff avoiding concentrated exposure to moving machinery and exposure to unprotected heights and moderate noise. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff was limited to “simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements.” Id. Finally, Plaintiff should be limited “to only occasional interaction with the public.” Id. As a result of these limitations, the ALJ determined that the claimant could not perform any of his past relevant work.

         At step five, and based on testimony by the vocational expert, the ALJ found that despite the severe impairments alleged by Plaintiff, he still maintained the residual functional capacity to perform other work as it existed in the national economy. [D.E. 19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19');">19, p. 36]. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work as a marker, order caller, and housekeeper/cleaner, all of which are light duty, unskilled positions requiring a Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”) level of “2.” In comparing Sugarman's residual functional capacity with the physical and mental demands of his past relevant work, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform these jobs and that significant numbers existed in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Sugarman “has not been under a disability” as defined under the Social Security Act and denied his claim. Id., pp. 36-37.

         Sugarman appealed the ALJ's decision, which was denied on November 25, 2014. He then timely sought review of the ALJ's decision with this Court.

         II. ...

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