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Arroyo v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

November 13, 2017




         Plaintiff Maria De Lourdes Arroyo appeals to this Court from Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. I have reviewed the record, including the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision, the exhibits, and joint memorandum submitted by the parties. For the following reasons, I respectfully recommend that the Commissioner's final decision be reversed and the case be remanded, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Background [1]

         When the ALJ made her administrative decision, Plaintiff was fifty-two years old, with a GED, and past work experience as a cleaner and “cook helper” (Tr. 62-63, 300, 332). On August 1, 2011, Plaintiff applied for benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416, 423, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2011(Tr. 300-307, 328). Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 170- 180, 188-197). At Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held an administrative hearing on January 9, 2013 (Tr. 72-107, 198). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 22, 2013 (Tr. 146-163). Plaintiff petitioned the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision and on August 20, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the case back to the Commissioner for further review (Tr. 164-169). A different ALJ held another administrative hearing on December 22, 2014 (Tr. 43-71). On February 17, 2015 the new ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision (Tr. 26-36). On September 7, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the second decision (Tr. 1-8). Thus, the second decision became the Commissioner's final decision and this appeal timely followed (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and her case is ripe for review.

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process codified at 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform work in the national economy. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1240 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id., at 1241 n.10; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987).

         The ALJ determined at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (Tr. 29). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff severely impaired by mild degenerative disc disease and obesity (Tr. 29). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) (Tr. 29-30). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to,

[P]erform a wide range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and sit, stand, or walk throughout the workday. The claimant can occasionally stoop and crouch and occasionally push and pull with her upper and lower extremities.

(Tr. 30-34). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work (Tr. 34). But, the ALJ ultimately concluded at step five that there were other jobs in the national economy-like bottling line attendant, egg washer, and street cleaner- that Plaintiff could perform and therefore, she was not disabled (Tr. 34-36).

         Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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 but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted).

         When 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 preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The district court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner.]” Id. "The district court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision." Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings).


         A. The ALJ Failed to Apply the Proper Legal Standard to the Opinion of Plaintiff's Treating Physician, Dr. Stephen Goll

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by relying on the conclusions of non-examining state agency consultant Thomas Peele, M.D., to discredit and discount the opinion of her ...

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