United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division
OPINION AND ORDER
MIRANDO UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
Issues on Appeal
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.
Summary of the ALJ's Decision
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. 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 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.
Standard of Review
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). 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).
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)).
Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings
regarding Plaintiff's RFC
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 instructions and
perform SVP 3-4 tasks as consistent with semi-skilled
work.” Tr. 805.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...