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Limle v. Berryhill

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

December 12, 2017

TINA LIMLE, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). She makes several arguments on appeal: (1) the ALJ erred in not finding Plaintiff's mental limitations to be severe at step two, and erred in incorporating her mental limitations into her residual functional capacity (RFC) at steps four and five; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of her treating psychiatrist and nurse practitioner; and (3) the ALJ posed an incomplete hypothetical question to the vocational expert (VE). After considering the record, I agree with Plaintiff on her first argument. Accordingly, I recommend that the Court remand the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings.[1]

         A. Background

         Plaintiff, who was 45 years old at the time of the administrative hearing, has a high school education and some college and has past relevant work as a waitress, stock clerk, and electronics assembler. She alleges she has been unable to work since January 1, 2011, due to bipolar disorder with psychosis, anxiety, and back pain.[2] (R. 128) The ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease with minimal disc herniation in the cervical and lumbar spine. (R. 20) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled as she has the RFC to perform a less than full range of light work as follows:

She is limited to lifting a carrying ten pounds continuously and twenty pounds occasionally, and she can sit for four (4) hours continuously without interruptions, stand for two (2) hours and walk for two (2) hours in an eight-hour day, as well as ambulate without the use of a cane on level surfaces for half a mile, despite needing an assistive device as being medically necessary. She is further limited to frequent reaching, including overhead reaching, but can continuously handle, finger, feel, and push/pull with the bilateral upper extremities, as well as operate foot controls continuously. In regard to postural activities, the claimant is limited to occasional climbing of stairs and balance, but she is precluded from climbing ladders or scaffolds, and she can never stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl.

(R. 23) The ALJ concluded that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work but could work as a surveillance system monitor, an order clerk, and a telephone information clerk. (R. 29) Plaintiff administratively appealed, and the Appeals Council denied review. With the ALJ's decision being the Commissioner's final one, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review.

         B. Standard of Review

         To be entitled to DIB and/or SSI, a claimant must be unable to engage “in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “‘physical or mental impairment' is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated detailed regulations that are currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence, the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment(s) (i.e., one that significantly limits her ability to perform work-related functions); (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of Appendix 1, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) considering the Commissioner's determination of claimant's RFC, whether the claimant can perform her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of her prior work, the ALJ must decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f), (g); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f), (g).

         In reviewing the ALJ's findings, this Court must ask if substantial evidence supports those findings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The ALJ's factual findings are conclusive if “substantial evidence consisting of relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion exists.” Keeton v. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citation and quotations omitted). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ even if it finds the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. See Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066 (citations omitted).

         C. Discussion

         1.Severity and Step Two

         Under the heading, “The ALJ Erred in Evaluating the Severity of Plaintiff's Mental Impairments” (doc. 18 at 2), Plaintiff makes three arguments: the ALJ should have classified her bipolar disorder as a severe impairment; the ALJ should have incorporated Plaintiff's bipolar-related limitations into her RFC; and the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of treating psychiatrist Dr. Hemsath and treating nurse practitioner Donna Dempsey, A.R.N.P., in favor of the opinion of one-time examiner and forensic psychologist Linda Appenfeldt, Ph.D. The Commissioner argues that substantial evidence supports both the ALJ's step two determination that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder is non-severe, and his consideration of Plaintiff's mental impairments in later steps. The Commissioner also contends that the ALJ had good cause to discount the treating source opinions (doc. 21).

         Plaintiff's emphasis on step two misses the mark to some extent.[3] Step two requires only that the ALJ determine whether Plaintiff suffers from at least one severe impairment. See Jamison v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 585, 588 (11th Cir. 1987) (holding “the finding of any severe impairment . . . whether or not it results from a single severe impairment or a combination of impairments that together qualify as severe” is enough to satisfy step two). Here, once the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the ...

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