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Elliott v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 13, 2017

DEBRA ELLIOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CAROL MIRANDO UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Debra Elliott seeks judicial review of the denial of her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs and the applicable law. For the reasons discussed herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.[1]

         I. Issues on Appeal[2]

         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) findings regarding Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); (2) whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of a treating physician; and (3) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's credibility.

         II. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         On June 22, 2006, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging her disability began February 1, 2006 due to depression, anxiety, bulimia, and back, neck, hip and knee problems.[3] Tr. 104, 108. The decision before the Court is the June 26, 2015 decision issued by ALJ Maria C. Northington, finding Plaintiff not disabled from February 1, 2006, the alleged onset date, through the date of the decision. Tr. 800-15. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009 and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity from February 1, 2006, the alleged onset date. Tr. 802. Although the ALJ found that Plaintiff has several severe impairments, she concluded that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. 802-03. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work[4] with certain limitations. Tr. 803. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a receptionist. Tr. 812. Alternatively, the ALJ found there are other jobs existing in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. Tr. 813.

         III. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence. McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988) (citing 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).[5] Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, i.e., evidence that must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, and 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) (internal citations omitted).

         The Eleventh Circuit has restated that “[i]n determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, we give great deference to the ALJ's fact findings.” Hunter v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 808 F.3d 818, 822 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). 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 or found that the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Su livan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991); see also Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating that the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings). The Court reviews the Commissioner's conclusions of law under a de novo standard of review. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         IV. Discussion

         a. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings regarding Plaintiff's RFC

         The ALJ found Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with, among other limitations, that “[s]econdary to mental impairments, [Plaintiff] retains the capacity to understand, remember and carry-out at least SVP 3-4[6] instructions and perform SVP 3-4 tasks as consistent with semi-skilled work.” Tr. 805.

         Plaintiff argues although the ALJ found Plaintiff's anxiety, depression and marijuana use to be severe impairments, the ALJ's RFC findings do not sufficiently account for limitations caused by her severe mental impairments, including her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence or pace. Doc. 21 at 10-12. Plaintiff also asserts the ALJ erroneously determined what she could perform “at least, ” instead of what she can perform “most.” Id. at 11-12. The Commissioner responds the ALJ sufficiently accounted for Plaintiff's functional limitations in assessing her RFC and posing a hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”). Doc. 28 at 14-16.

         The Court finds, contrary to Plaintiff's argument, the ALJ sufficiently accounted for the limitations caused by her mental impairments. Cf. Doc. 21 at 10-12. After the ALJ found Plaintiff's anxiety, depression and marijuana use to be severe impairments, the ALJ considered four broad functional areas known as the “paragraph B” criteria.[7] Tr. 803-04. The ALJ first discussed the psychological evaluations performed by J.L. Bernard, J.D., Ph.D., on February 15, 2006 and October 17, 2006. Tr. 289-91, 317-19, 803-04. Dr. Bernard found Plaintiff's thought processes were rational, clear and logical, or good for the most part, and her thought content was not remarkable. Tr. 290, 318. He also opined her mood was stable and appropriate, and her insight, judgment and intellectual level were average. Tr. 290, 318. Dr. Bernard further opined Plaintiff was well-oriented for time and place and could handle finances. Tr. 290-91, 319.

         The ALJ also examined the function reports completed by Plaintiff and her mother in August 2006. Tr. 114-29, 804. Plaintiff and her mother reported Plaintiff prepares meals and does housework daily and goes shopping independently. Tr. 116-17, 124-25. They also indicated Plaintiff is able to go out alone, drive a car, pay bills, count change, handle a savings account and use a checkbook or money orders. Tr. 117, 125. Based on the reports, the ALJ found Plaintiff “has no problems taking care of her own personal needs, ” and also “takes care of the personal needs of her children and her pets.” Tr. 804. The ALJ further noted Plaintiff has “no psychiatric, psychological or mental health treatment records.” Id. The ALJ determined Plaintiff has no restrictions in activities of daily living. Id.

         Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has mild difficulties in social functioning and moderate difficulties in the area of concentration, persistence or pace, and has experienced no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. Id. The ALJ then concluded that her RFC assessment “reflects the degree of limitation [she] has found in the ‘paragraph B' mental function analysis.” Tr. 805. Accordingly, the Court's review of the record reveals that contrary to Plaintiff's argument, the ALJ sufficiently considered and assessed Plaintiff's functional limitations caused by her mental impairments. Tr. 803-05.

         Plaintiff further argues the ALJ erred by determining that Plaintiff has “the capacity to understand, remember and carry-out at least SVP 3-4 instructions and perform SVP 3-4 tasks as consistent with semi-skilled work, ” although she found Plaintiff has moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace. Doc. 21 at 10-11. Plaintiff asserts this error led to the ALJ's erroneous conclusion that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work. Id. at 11-12.

         The Court finds Plaintiff's argument is without merit. Although the ALJ here found Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist, she also assessed and determined there are other jobs existing in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. Tr. 812-14. The ALJ proceeded to step five, assuming that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566. When a claimant, as assumed here, cannot perform the full range of work at a given exertional level or has non-exertional impairments that significantly limit her basic work skills, an ALJ may rely solely on the testimony of a VE. Jones, 190 F.3d at 1229; Foote, 67 F.3d at 1559; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566. A VE's testimony will constitute substantial evidence if the ALJ's hypothetical question includes all of a claimant's functional limitations. Jones, 190 F.3d at 1229.

         Here, in making her step-five findings, the ALJ consulted a VE during the hearing and relied on the VE's testimony. Tr. 858-67. The ALJ posed a hypothetical question to the VE, which comprised all of Plaintiff's RFC and additional limitations to unskilled work with the abilities to understand, remember and carr out simple instructions and perform simple, routine tasks:

ALJ: Are there other jobs that exist in the state of Florida and the national economy that such a hypothetical person [with Plaintiff's RFC] could perform [with additional limitations to] unski led work meaning that the person could understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and perform simple routine tasks consistent with unski led ...

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