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Saienni v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 21, 2017




         Plaintiff Kelly Saienni seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons set forth herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.[1]

         I. Issues on Appeal[2]

         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (a) whether substantial evidence supports the administrative law judge's (ALJ's) determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); (b) whether the ALJ presented a proper hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”); and (c) whether the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's credibility.

         II. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         On May 15, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from April 1, 2011, the alleged onset of disability, through the date of the decision. Tr. 34. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2011. Tr. 21. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, deep venous thrombosis, depression and anxiety. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have “an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. 22. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work[3] with limitations. Tr. 24. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 32. Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform and therefore concluded she was not disabled. Tr. 33-34.

         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).[4] 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. Sullivan, 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 determination of Plaintiff's RFC

         In her opinion, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except:

she can never climb ramps or stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl [ ]; have frequent handling, that is gross manipulation with both hands; have frequent fingering, that is fine manipulation; occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights; occasionally operate a motor vehicle; perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.

Tr. 24. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's RFC because it does not account for Plaintiff's cervical spine disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome. Doc. 17 at 6. In support of her position, Plaintiff refers to various medical evidence. Id. at 7-10. The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC findings. Doc. 18 at 10-16.

         The RFC is the most that a claimant can do despite her limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). At the hearing level, the ALJ has the responsibility of assessing a claimant's RFC. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c). The ALJ is required to assess a claimant's RFC based on all of the relevant evidence in the record, including any medical history, daily activities, lay evidence and medical source statements. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The claimant's age, education, work experience, and whether she can return to her past relevant work are considered in determining her RFC, Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)), and the RFC assessment is based upon all relevant evidence of a claimant's ability to do work despite her impairments. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)).

         Here, as detailed below, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC based on the entire record. Tr. 24-32.

         i. Plaintiff's cervical spine impairment

         Plaintiff points to an MRI of her cervical spine in 2013, which showed “[m]oderate-to-large right paracentral disc protrusion at C5-6 effacing the thecal sac anteriorly impinging on the cervical cord.” Tr. 601. Based on the MRI, Sergio Luis Selva, M.D., opined that Plaintiff had “moderate-to-severe canal stenosis as well as mild right lateral recess stenosis.” Id. Dr. Selva opined that this could account for Plaintiff's symptoms. Tr. 601. Plaintiff also points to the records of a nurse practitioner supervised by Dr. Mahaney who examined Plaintiff and noted positive spurling signs ...

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