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Harper v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 18, 2017

MARGARET LYNN HARPER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          THOMAS B. SMITH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for Widow's Disability Insurance Benefits. Upon a review of the record, I respectfully recommend that the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and the case be REMANDED for additional proceedings.

         Background[1]

         On December 19, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Widow's Disability Insurance Benefits under her deceased husbands' (Royal D. Harper and Roger D. Dean) earnings records, alleging an onset date of August 26, 2012 (Tr. 242-244). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 135-139, 141-155), and she requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William H. Greer (Tr. 61-86, 156). On June 15, 2015, the ALJ issued his unfavorable decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 37-54).

         Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 30, 36). On November 3, 2016, the Commissioner's Appeals Council notified her that they were granting her request for review “only about [her] claim for Widow's Insurance Benefits (Disability) under wage earner Roger Dale Dean ... We will send you a separate letter about your claim for Widow's Insurance Benefits (Disability) under wage earner Royal D. Harper ...” (Tr. 234-237). The Appeals Council said the ALJ, “in error, issued a decision only on [her] application for widow's insurance benefits under wage earner Royal D. Harper. The decision made no reference to [her] application for widow's insurance benefits under wage earner Roger Dale Dean.” (Tr. 235).

         On January 13, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of her “claim for Widow's Insurance Benefits (Disability) under wage earner Royal D. Harper” (Tr. 11-15). Thus, the ALJ's decision of June 15, 2015 is the Commissioner's final decision on this claim.

         On January 24, 2017, the Appeals Council issued a Notice of Appeals Council Decision Unfavorable that “pertain[ed] only to the claim for Widow's Insurance Benefits (Disability) under wage earner Roger Dale Dean” (Tr. 6). In its decision, the Appeals Council said it “adopt[ed] the Administrative Law Judge's statements regarding ... the issues in the case, and the evidentiary facts, as applicable. The Appeals Council also adopts the Administrative Law Judge's findings or conclusions regarding whether the claimant is disabled.” (Tr. 6-7). The Appeals Council thus determined that Plaintiff was not disabled and ineligible for widow's insurance benefits under wage earner Roger Dale Dean “at any time from the alleged onset date of August 26, 2012 through June 15, 2015, the date of the Administrative Law Judge's decision” (Tr. 7). The January 24, 2017 decision of the Appeals Council is the final decision of the Commissioner, with respect to this claim.

         Plaintiff brings this action after exhausting her available administrative remedies as to both claims. The issues have been fully briefed, and the case was referred to me for a report and recommendation.

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). In the evaluation process the ALJ determines whether the claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1240 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 n.10.

         Here, the ALJ performed the required sequential analysis.[2] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (Tr. 42). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease and compression fractures (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)) (Tr. 42). At step three, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 43). Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) with limitations. The claimant can sit for up to 7 hours per day for up to 1 hour at a time. The claimant can stand/walk for up to 2 hours per day for up to 15 minutes at a time. The claimant can lift up to 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently. The claimant can bend, stoop, crouch, kneel, and climb ramps and stairs no more than occasionally. The claimant can never crawl or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can reach above shoulder level no more than occasionally. The claimant must not work around unprotected heights or moving hazardous machinery. The claimant must not drive motorized vehicles.

(Tr. 43-44).

         At step four, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as a document preparer, as it is described in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (Tr. 48). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from August 26, 2012, through the date of the decision (Tr. 48-49).

         Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). Findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). When 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 preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The district court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner.]” Id. "The district court must view the record as a whole, taking into ...


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