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Mayes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Gainesville Division

October 31, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff appeals to this Court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act). ECF No. 1. The Commissioner has answered, and both parties have filed briefs outlining their respective positions. ECF Nos. 8, 14, 15. For the reasons discussed below, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on October 2, 2012, alleging disability commencing on February 26, 2011. His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 7, 2015, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 30-51. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 22, 2015, and on December 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. R. 1-4, 12-24.

         This appeal followed. The sole issue presented is whether the ALJ should have found Plaintiff disabled at Step Five because it is credible that a person with Plaintiff's mental impairments and lack of vocational history would not “suddenly” be able to maintain full-time employment. ECF No. 14 at 28.


         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.[1] 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.[2]

         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.[3]The district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision.[4] However, the district court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law.[5]

         The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death, or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.[6]The impairment must be severe, making Plaintiff unable to do his previous work, or any other substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy.[7]

         The ALJ must follow five steps in evaluating a claim of disability.[8]First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.[9] Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled.[10] Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled.[11] Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled.[12] Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is disabled.[13]

         The burden of proof regarding the plaintiff's inability to perform past relevant work initially lies with the plaintiff.[14] The burden then temporarily shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that “other work” which the claimant can perform currently exists in the national economy.[15] The Commissioner may satisfy this burden by pointing to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grids”) for a conclusive determination that a claimant is disabled or not disabled.[16]

         However, the ALJ should not exclusively rely on the Grids when “the claimant has a non-exertional impairment which significantly limits his or her basic work skills or when the claimant cannot perform a full range of employment at the appropriate level of exertion.”[17] In a situation where both exertional and non-exertional impairments are found, the ALJ is obligated to make specific findings as to whether they preclude a wide range of employment.[18]

         The ALJ may use the Grids as a framework to evaluate vocational factors so long as he introduces independent evidence of the existence of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform.[19] Such independent evidence may be introduced by a Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony, but this is not the exclusive means of introducing such evidence.[20] Only after the Commissioner meets this burden does the burden shift back to the claimant to show that he or she is not capable of performing the “other work” as set forth by the Commissioner.


         A. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of: hypertension, obesity, affective disorder, anxiety related disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, schizoaffective disorder, and alcohol use disorder. Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the listings. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC for light work, with additional exertional limitations and with limitations to account for his mental impairments, including only occasional collaboration with coworkers and supervisors, in a job with simple routine tasks that require no independent goal-setting judgments, and in a work environment with only occasional changes. After discussing the relevant evidence, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding the limiting effects of his impairments were not entirely credible.

         Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Based upon the testimony of a VE, the ALJ determined that in view of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as housekeeping cleaner, marker, and photocopying-machine operator. The ALJ therefore found that Plaintiff was not disabled. R. 12-24.

         B. Medical and Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff's argument on appeal focuses on asserted limitations stemming from his mental impairments. See ECF No. 14 at 28 (citing Plaintiff's combination of mental health impairments and lack of vocational history as grounds for reversing the ALJ's decision). The evidence that is relevant to Plaintiff's argument may be summarized as follows.

         Plaintiff's records reflect that he was diagnosed with chronic schizophreniform disorder in November 2011. See R. 444.

         Plaintiff underwent a mental status examination at Meridian Behavioral Healthcare following his release from jail in August 2012. R. 278-79. The examination findings were normal. Plaintiff was continued on medication for depression and anxiety. Id.

         Alachua County Health Department (ACHD) records from May 2013 reflect that Plaintiff had a normal mood and normal affect, mild anxiousness, and he denied suicidal ideation and hallucinations. R. 303-04, 312. Plaintiff reported auditory hallucinations in July 2013, but he had stopped taking his medication. He was provided with counseling, including to increase his awareness of the value of proper use of medications. R. 444. In August ...

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