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Dixon v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 1, 2017

PRISCILLA LYNN DIXON Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CAROL MIRANDO United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Priscilla Lynn Dixon 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: (1) whether the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) findings of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) adequately account for Plaintiff's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence and pace; (2) whether the ALJ properly relied upon the testimony of the Vocational Expert (“VE”) at step five; and (3) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's credibility.

         II. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff was 53 years old at the time of the hearing before ALJ Hortensia Haaversen on January 21, 2015. Tr. 13, 18. Plaintiff alleged disability due to arthritis and chronic pain in her back, anxiety and depression. Tr. 18, 199. On April 16, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from November 23, 2010, the alleged disability onset date, through December 31, 2011, the date last insured. Tr. 13-23. In her decision, at step two of the sequential process, [3]the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of “lumbosacral myofascial pain syndrome status post a history of two lumbar spinal surgeries on June 23, 2003 for an L4-5 disc herniation and November 23, 2010 for recurrent herniation with hemilaminectomy, medial facetectomy, foraminotomy, and removal of the extruded disc; depression; and anxiety.” Tr. 15-16. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listing. Tr. 16-17. In doing so, she found that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living and social functioning and a moderate limitation in concentration, persistence or pace. Tr. 16-17. Prior to step four, the ALJ then determined that during the relevant period Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work[4] with additional physical restrictions. Tr. 17. To account for Plaintiff's mental limitations, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to jobs that required her to perform simple, routine tasks. Tr. 17. Next, at step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a meat wrapper, because the job is generally performed at the medium exertional level. Tr. 21-22. At step five, however, based on Plaintiff's age (49 on the alleged disability onset date and 50 as of the date last insured), education, work experience and RFC, and based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found there were unskilled jobs at the light exertional level existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Tr. 22-23. As a result, she found Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 23.

         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).[5] 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. Su livan, 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. Plainti f's RFC

         In finding Plaintiff could perform light work, the ALJ restricted Plaintiff to jobs requiring no more than simple, routine tasks based on nonexertional limitations. Tr. 17, 21. Plaintiff first argues this restriction did not adequately account for the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in sustaining concentration, persistence and pace and moderate limitations in social functioning.[6] Doc. 19 at 7 (citing Tr. 17, 21). Moreover, she argues the ALJ failed to sufficiently explain how this restriction accommodated these limitations, and instead the ALJ should have performed a “function by function assessment of limitations stemming from Plaintiff's mental impairments” and included them in the hypothetical to the VE. Id. at 7-8 (citing to Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011)). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's RFC finding and hypothetical adequately account for Plaintiff's moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence and pace. Doc. 20 at 5 (citing Tr. 17, 49-50). The Court finds the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's mental limitations and included them in her hypothetical to the VE; and thus substantial evidence supports the RFC.

         After the ALJ found Plaintiff's anxiety and depression, among other physical impairments, to be severe, she discussed whether Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments met or equaled a listing. Tr. 15-16. In doing so, the ALJ considered four broad functional areas for evaluating mental disorders known as the “paragraph B” criteria.[7] Tr. 16-17. The ALJ determined Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living and social functioning and moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace. Tr. 16-17. The ALJ discussed her reasoning for these findings:

In activities of daily living, [Plaintiff] had mild restriction. The medical records show that during the period at issue, [Plaintiff] was able to perform activities of daily living with minimal limitation. Even after the period at issue, [Plaintiff] was able to care for her ill mother, perform household chores, and take care of pets and horses. Furthermore, any limitation in this domain would appear to be from her physical impairments, and not due to any mental impairment
In social functioning, [Plaintiff] had mild difficulties. [Plaintiff] reported that after her daughter's passing, she isolated herself and stopped socializing. In her function report, she states that she has no social activity whatsoever. (Exhibit 5E/5) However, the undersigned notes that [Plaintiff] reported that a neighbor helps her with chores on a weekly basis. [Plaintiff] is close to her mother, and has reported spending extensive time caring for her mother during illnesses. [Plaintiff] is able to go to public places without difficulty, and has no history of violence. She admits to her treating physicians that her panic attacks are well-controlled with medication. At most, any limitation in this domain is only mild.
With regard to concentration, persistence or pace, [Plaintiff] had moderate difficulties. In her function report, [Plaintiff] states that she is only able to pay attention for about ten minutes. However, she admits that she is able to follow instructions well. As will be discussed in full later in this decision, [Plaintiff] has admitted being able to drive long distances and care for her ill mother without any particular assistance. The medical records reflect no significant ...

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