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Stockman v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

November 27, 2017

NICOLE STOCKMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [1]

          MONTE C. RICHARDSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of an administrative decision denying her applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff alleged in her DIB application that she became disabled on November 1, 2010. (Tr. 32, 120.) Plaintiff alleged in her SSI application that she became disabled on August 1, 2008. (Tr. 768, 774.) A hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 20, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney.[2] (Tr. 826-89.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from November 1, 2010 through August 24, 2015, the date of the decision. (Tr. 18-31.)

         In reaching the decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder with depression and anxiety, history of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), personality disorder, moderate to severe left ear sensorineural hearing loss, mild right ear sensorineural hearing loss, migraines, and history of alcohol and marijuana dependence in sustained remission.” (Tr. 19 (internal citation omitted).) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work. (Tr. 23.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work (Tr. 29), but that she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including surveillance system monitor, addresser, table worker, checker II, and housekeeping/cleaner (Tr. 30.) In reaching this conclusion, and in assessing to what extent Plaintiff's limitations erode the unskilled, light occupational base, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. 30.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from November 1, 2010 through August 24, 2015. Plaintiff has exhausted her available administrative remedies and the case is properly before the Court. The undersigned has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that the Commissioner's decision be REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Standard

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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, and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates 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). The district court must view the evidence 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); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff raises four general issues on appeal. First, Plaintiff argues that the VE's testimony regarding the jobs she could perform does not constitute substantial evidence so as to meet the Commissioner's burden of showing that Plaintiff can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to adequately consider her asthma impairment. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to adequately consider her neuropathy in determining her ability to work. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in analyzing her disability claims with a November 1, 2010 onset date, as opposed to the August 1, 2008 onset date provided in her SSI application. Defendant concedes that the ALJ erred in identifying certain jobs that Plaintiff could perform, but contends that such an error was harmless. Defendant also responds that the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's impairments and properly utilized the November 1, 2010 onset date. The undersigned agrees with Plaintiff on the first issue and, therefore, does not reach Plaintiff's additional arguments.

         A. The ALJ's Decision and VE Testimony

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform:

a wide range of Light work with the ability to occasionally lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Title [sic] (D.O.T.) and regulations, as well as, lift/carry 10 pounds frequently. This includes sedentary work as defined in Dictionary of Occupational Title [sic] (D.O.T.) and the regulations. The claimant has no limits for sitting in an eight-hour workday. She is able to perform occasional postural functions of climbing ramps/stairs, kneeling and stooping. She is to perform no crawling, no crouching and no climbing of ladders/ropes/scaffolds. The claimant is to perform no work that would involve hazardous situations such as work at unprotected heights or work around dangerous machinery that may cause harm to self or others. In the course of work, the claimant is to have no exposure to extremes of hot, humidity or cold temperatures. She is to perform no work in loud[, ] noisy environments. Secondary to her mental impairments, she retains the capacity to understand, remember and carry[-]out simple instructions and perform simple routine tasks as consistent with unskilled work. In the course of work, she is to have no contact with the public and only occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors, occasional being defined as occasional interaction and coordination, but not necessarily proximity to the same.

(Tr. 23.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work (Tr. 29), but that she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 30). The ALJ relied on the VE's testimony that she could perform the jobs of surveillance system monitor, addresser, table worker, checker II, and housekeeping/cleaner in response to a hypothetical that included Plaintiff's RFC limitations.[3] (Tr. 30-31.) However, when cross-examined by Plaintiff's attorney at the hearing, the VE identified a conflict between the general educational requirements (“GED”) listed in the DOT for certain jobs identified by the VE that Plaintiff could perform and his testimony, in light of Plaintiff's hypothetical limitation to simple instructions. The following discussion occurred between Plaintiff's attorney and the VE:

Q. [T]he [jobs] we arrive[d] at, I think, [we]re surveillance system monitor; the addresser; and the table ...

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