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Lett v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 18, 2018

BARBARA C. LETT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MAC R. MCCOY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This cause comes before the Court on Plaintiff Barbara C. Lett's Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on July 11, 2016. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. The Commissioner filed the Transcript of the proceedings (hereinafter referred to as “Tr.” followed by the appropriate page number), and the parties filed legal memoranda in support of their positions. For the reasons set out herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Social Security Act Eligibility, Procedural History, the ALJ's Decision, and Standard of Review

         A. Eligibility

         The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505.[1] The impairment must be severe, making the claimant unable to do her previous work, or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 -404.1511. Plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion through step four, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         B. Procedural History

         On January 4, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits with an alleged onset date of December 16, 2010. (Tr. at 253). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on May 2, 2012 and upon reconsideration on August 6, 2012. (Tr. at 139-40). A video hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Roxanne Fuller on January 6, 2015. (Tr. at 97-127). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 3, 2015. (Tr. at 76-96). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability from December 16, 2010 through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 90).

         On May 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 1-5). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in this Court on July 11, 2016. Defendant filed an Answer (Doc. 18) on February 14, 2017. The parties filed a memoranda in support. (Docs. 27-28). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 21). This case is ripe for review.

         C. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant has proven that she is disabled. Packer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 542 F. App'x 890, 891 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)).[2] An ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is performing substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work of the sort found in the national economy. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-40 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant has the burden of proof through step four and then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Hines-Sharp v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 511 F. App'x 913, 915 n.2 (11th Cir. 2013).

         As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2015. (Tr. at 81). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 16, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “neuropathy, hip fracture with replacement surgery, history of foot fracture, degenerative disc disease of the spine, and arthritis.” (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart. P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). (Tr. at 83).

         Based on the evidence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “sedentary work” except that Plaintiff can:

occasionally climb ramps or stairs; occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl; frequently handle objects, that is gross manipulation with both hands; frequently finger, that is fine manipulation with both hands; have occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts; occasionally operate a motor vehicle; and have occasional exposure to unprotected heights.

(Tr. at 84).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “is capable of performing past relevant work as an administrative assistant and caseworker.” (Tr. at 90). The ALJ found that “[t]his work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity.” (Id.). Specifically, in comparing Plaintiff's RFC with the physical and mental demands of this work, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform it as actually and generally performed. (Id.). In making this finding, the ALJ noted the vocational expert's (“VE”) testimony that Plaintiff's past work experience was that of an administrative assistant and a caseworker. (Id.). The VE testified that “those jobs generally occur at the sedentary exertion level and that the claimant specifically performed the work at that level.” (Id.). The VE further testified that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's RFC “could perform the work both as [Plaintiff] specifically did it and as the jobs are generally done in the national economy.” (Id.). Pursuant to Social Security Ruling 00-4p, the ALJ found Plaintiff's work history and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to be consistent with the VE's testimony. (Id.).

         Because the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform past relevant work at step four, the ALJ did not proceed to make findings at step five. (See id.). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from December 16, 2010 through the date of decision. (Id.).

         D. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence, 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). 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); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401).

         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 district 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; accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating that the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine reasonableness of factual findings).

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiff raises two issues on appeal. First, Plaintiff argues that “[t]he Commissioner improperly rejected the opinion of the state agency examining and nonexamining consultants as far as Ms. Lett's mental limitations.” (Doc. 27 at 1). Second, Plaintiff argues that “[t]he Commissioner failed to articulate good cause for not adopting the opinions of Dr. Mufdi regarding Ms. Lett's limitations and the ...


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