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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 5, 2018




         Plaintiff Janice Williams seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”) 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 Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) fully and fairly developed the record; (2) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's failure to follow prescribed treatment in evaluating her credibility; and (3) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”).

         II. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         On April 9, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging her disability began August 15, 2008 due to uncontrolled diabetes, anemia and severe nerve pain.[3]Tr. 81, 181. On April 20, 2015, ALJ Gregory M. Hamel issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled since April 9, 2012, the application date. Tr. 15-22. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 9, 2012, the application date. Tr. 17. Although the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of diabetes mellitus and cervical disc disease with radiculopathy, he concluded that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. 17-18. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work[4] with certain limitations. Tr. 18. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a housekeeper. Tr. 22. Thus, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled since April 9, 2012, the application date. Id.

         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. Sullivan, 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. Whether the ALJ fully and fairly developed the record

         The ALJ noted in his decision, “[Plaintiff] is a 55-year-old former housekeeping worker who completed high school but may have had special education services while in school.” Tr. 17. On her application for SSI, Plaintiff did not allege any intellectual disability as her disabling impairment. Tr. 81. Plaintiff also denied attending special education classes on her disability report. Tr. 182.

         In contrast, Plaintiff's counsel submitted a Pre-Hearing Memorandum before the ALJ's hearing, suggesting Plaintiff has “altered mental status, ” “labile personality, ” communication problems, “mild mental slowing” and illiteracy. Tr. 229-30. Counsel noted that Plaintiff's “untreated” mental impairments contributed to her difficulties complying with her treatment plans. Tr. 230. Counsel did not allege Plaintiff's possible mental impairments as disabling. Tr. 229-30.

         During the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that although she finished high school, she was in special education classes throughout school. Tr. 20, 33. Plaintiff further testified she cannot read or understand a newspaper, is unable to write a check and has not ever written one. Tr. 39. She also testified she did not pass the driver's license test. Id. Based on Plaintiff's testimony, her counsel indicated to the ALJ that her high school diploma “is probably more like a special education diploma.” Tr. 30. Plaintiff's counsel requested a consultative psychological examination of Plaintiff, arguing that she is illiterate and has only limited education. Tr. 58-59. Counsel admitted Plaintiff's limited ability to read is not indicated anywhere in the record, and his request was solely based on Plaintiff's testimony during the hearing. Tr. 59. The ALJ responded Plaintiff finished high school, and he would consider counsel's request. Tr. 59-60.

         In his decision, the ALJ noted Plaintiff alleged diabetes, hip pain and intellectual difficulties and also “is often non-compliant with her prescribed medication regimen and dietary recommendations” regarding her diabetes. Tr. 19. The ALJ found Plaintiff's alleged intellectual disability did not contribute to her non-compliance with prescribed medications because:

[Plaintiff] alleged that she has problems reading and making change, and although she did reportedly receive special education services in school, she ultimately earned a high school diploma. [Plaintiff's] representative made a suggestion in his brief (Exhibit B14E) that [Plaintiff's] alleged intellectual deficit contributes to her noncompliance with treatment recommendations, citing to Exhibit B13F, yet treatment notes in this exhibit state that [Plaintiff] is following a low-fat diet and has been successful with weight management. Furthermore, [Plaintiff] consistently verbalizes understanding of spoken and written instructions during ...

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