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Rymer v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 21, 2017




         Plaintiff Barbara Lynn Rymer seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for a period of 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 discussed herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.[1]

         I. Issues on Appeal[2]

         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal:[3] (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) findings at step two; (2) whether the ALJ properly evaluated medical source opinions; and (3) whether the ALJ properly found Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work.

         II. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         On October 19, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging her disability began October 31, 2009 due to fibromyalgia.[4] Tr. 469-70, 474. ALJ William E. Sampson held a hearing on January 27, 2016, during which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and vocational exert (“VE”) Richard H. Riedl testified. Tr. 21-67. On March 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from October 31, 2009, the alleged onset date, through the date of the decision. Tr. 190-203. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2017 and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2009, the alleged onset date. Tr. 192-93. Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, fibromyalgia and interstitial cystitis. Tr. 193. The ALJ then concluded 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. 195. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work[5] with certain limitations. Tr. 196. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a retail sales clerk, layaway clerk and nurse assistant. Tr. 202.

         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).[6] 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 findings at step two

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has “‘non-severe' medically determinable impairments of gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), headaches, asthma, and bilateral degenerative changes to the hands with carpal tunnel syndrome.” Tr. 193. The ALJ explained:

The undersigned has specifically considered whether these impairments result in more than a minimal effect upon [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic work activities. However, there is a lack of evidence that would support specific limitations resultant from said impairments. For example, [Plaintiff] is without imaging of her head/skull/cranium that would indicate [] intracranial abnormality, she is without imaging of her chest that would indicate respiratory infiltrates or significant respiratory abnormality, and esophageal procedures have documented an “essentially normal” upper gastrointestinal system (Exhibit 30F/1; 4F/15). [Moreover], she is without emergency treatment or hospitalization from any of the aforementioned impairments. Finally, as to [Plaintiff's] hands, imaging documents only [show] “mild” degenerative changes to her wrists and hands (Exhibits 33F/41); moreover, during the period in question, outside of injections, she is without more aggressive treatment specific to her hands. Therefore, the undersigned concludes that these impairments do not result in more than a minimal effect on [Plaintiff's] physical or mental ability to perform basic physical and mental work activities. Consequently, for the purposes of this decision, the aforementioned impairments are “non-severe.”

Tr. 193 (footnotes omitted).

         The ALJ further concluded Plaintiff's cognitive, intellectual and knee disorders are non-medically determinable impairments because:

The record documents cognitive testing that indicates sub-average cognitive ability (Exhibit 24F). However, the physician who oversaw the [Plaintiff's] cognitive testing, Dr. Kasprzak, specifically reported [Plaintiff] as “evasive” and opined [Plaintiff's] cognitive results invalid and unreliable based upon [Plaintiff's] education, work history, and licensures (Exhibit 24F). Therefore, the undersigned finds that [Plaintiff] is without a medically determinable cognitive or intellectual disorder. As to [Plaintiff's] alleged knee disorder, the undersigned is bound by the language of 20 CFR 404.1512 and 416.912, which directs that the burden of proof of impairment rests with [Plaintiff]. Additionally, 20 CFR 404.1508 and 416.908 dictate that “a physical or mental impairment must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by your [Plaintiff's] statement of symptoms.” [Plaintiff's] clinical record is without imaging that would support a knee disorder. In fact, imaging of her knees has returned normal (Exhibit 11F/43). Consequently, the undersigned finds [Plaintiff's] alleged knee problems to be also be non-medically determinable.

Tr. 193-94.

         Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of depression and anxiety are non-severe because they:

do not cause more than minimal limitation in [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic mental work activities. . . . In support of this finding, [Plaintiff's] treatment has consisted of no more than prescribed medication and counseling, she is without inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, and her objective clinical findings are without significant psychiatric symptomology ([Plaintiff] is routinely documented as normal as to mood, effect and speech, oriented, appropriately groomed, logical and linear as to her thought process, [pleasant affect], and good as [to] insight and judgment; Exhibits 1F/8; l 7F/2, 4; 14F/20; 27F/3; 32F/51; 37F/6; and 33F/27)).

Tr. 194 (emphasis in original). Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by finding these impairments not severe. Doc. 20 at 18-20. The Commissioner argues the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's ...

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