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Rodriguez v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 30, 2017

CECELEE A. RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DANIEL C. IRICK UNITES STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Cecelee A. Rodriguez (Claimant) appeals to the District Court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security terminating her disability insurance benefits. Doc. 1; R. 1-6. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the ALJ) erred by: 1) failing to apply the correct legal standards when finding that medical improvement occurred as of April 3, 2014; and 2) failing to apply the correct legal standards to Claimant's testimony. Doc. 18. For the reasons set forth below, it is RECOMMENDED that the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On July 9, 2003, the Commissioner found that Claimant was disabled. R. 13. On March 16, 2012, the Commissioner determined that Claimant's disability continued. R. 13. Approximately two years later, upon periodic review, the Commissioner determined that Claimant was no longer disabled as of April 3, 2014. R. 13. After this determination was upheld upon reconsideration, Claimant timely filed a written request for a hearing before an ALJ. R. 13.

         The ALJ issued his decision on May 22, 2015. R. 13-31. In his decision, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following medically determinable impairments: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism, and chronic kidney disease - stage one. R. 16. The ALJ then found that medical improvement had occurred as of April 3, 2014, and that Claimant's medical improvement was related to her ability to work. R. 16-17. Specifically, the ALJ found that medical improvement had occurred due to the existence of a medical progress note in which it was recorded that Claimant's lupus had been in remission for “the last couple of years.” R. 16. The ALJ also stated that he did not consider the limiting effects of impairments that developed after the comparison point decision (CPD).[1] R. 16. The ALJ provided no further basis for his finding that Claimant had medically improved. R. 16.

         The ALJ then found that Claimant had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than a full range of light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).[2] R. 17. Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

Beginning on April 3, 2014, . . . claimant has had the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can lift and carry and push and pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. The claimant can stand and/or walk six hours total in an eight hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant can sit for six hours total in an eight hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, and stoop. The claimant cannot work in proximity to moving machinery, mechanical parts or in high, exposed places. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can never kneel, crouch or crawl.

Id. The ALJ posed a hypothetical question to the vocational expert (VE) that was lar gely consistent with the foregoing RFC determination, [3] and the VE testified that Claimant was capable of performing jobs in the national economy. R. 65-66. The ALJ also asked the VE if Claimant would be capable of performing jobs in the national economy if Claimant was restricted to sedentary work[4] instead of light work. R. 66-67. The ALJ thus found that Claimant was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 23-24. Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant was no longer disabled as of April 3, 2014. R. 24.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “In Social Security appeals, [the court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.'” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). 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., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include 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) (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) and Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). 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 Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560. The District Court “‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].'” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Failure to Apply the Correct Legal Standards When Finding That Medical Improvement Occurred as of April 3, 2014

         Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594, the Commissioner will periodically review a claimant's entitlement to benefits to determine whether the claimant's disability has ended. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(a). When making this determination, the ALJ must follow an eight-step sequential inquiry to determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals one listed in the Regulations; (3) whether there has been medical improvement;[5] (4) whether such medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to do work; (5) whether any exceptions apply to the requirement that there has been “medical improvement” related to the claimant's ability to do work; (6) whether the claimant's current combination of impairments are severe; (7) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (8) whether the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f); see also, e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5); Senior v. Colvin, 3:12-cv-589-J-12-JRK, 2013 WL 4781044, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 6, 2013). “[T]he burden is on the Commissioner to prove that the claimant is no longer disabled as of the cessation date because the [claimant] had experienced ‘medical improvement.'” Olivo v. Colvin, 6:16-cv-259-Orl-40JRK, 2017 WL 708743, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 30, 2017) (citations omitted), report and recommendation adopted, 2017 WL 700367 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 22, 2017).

         Here, Claimant takes issue with the ALJ's determination at steps three and four - that Claimant has experienced medical improvement related to her ability to do work. Doc. 18 at 8-11. Specifically, Claimant argues that the ALJ's finding that medical improvement occurred as of April 3, 2014 was not based on the correct legal standards because the ALJ failed to compare the prior medical evidence against the ...


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