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Jones v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 22, 2018

JARRED MICHAEL JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          DANIEL C. IRICK UNITES STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Jarred Michael Jones (Claimant) appeals to the District Court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying his application for supplemental security income. Doc. 1; R. 1-4, 238-46. Claimant argued that the Administrative Law Judge (the ALJ) erred, in part, by failing to apply the correct legal standards to the testimony of Deborah Jones (Ms. Jones), Claimant's mother. Doc. 24 at 19-20. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In April 2011, Claimant filed an application for supplemental security income. R. 238-46. Claimant alleged a disability onset date of March 28, 2011. R. 19, 238.

         The ALJ issued his decision on October 5, 2015. R. 19-29. In his decision, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, asthma, and affective disorder. R. 21-22. The ALJ found that Claimant had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than a full range of heavy work[1] as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(d).[2] R. 23. Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform heavy work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except he can sit for 6 hours and stand and walk (30 minutes at a time) for 4 hours each in an 8-hour workday. He has no restrictions with the use of his hands or feet and has no postural limitations. He can tolerate only occasional exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, and gases. He is limited to simple, routine tasks only on a sustained basis. He needs to avoid any abrupt changes in the work place and can only tolerate gradual changes in the work place.

Id. The ALJ posed a hypothetical question to the vocational expert (VE) that was consistent with the foregoing RFC determination, and the VE testified that Claimant was capable of performing jobs in the national economy. R. 60-61. The ALJ thus found that Claimant was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 28-29. Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled. R. 29.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “In Social Security appeals, [the court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.'” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). 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) and Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). 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 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. The District Court “‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].'” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Claimant argued, in part, that the ALJ erred by failing to discuss or weigh Ms. Jones' testimony. Doc. 24 at 19-20. Specifically, Claimant noted Ms. Jones' testimony that Claimant was not supposed to make adjustments to his insulin pump on his own when his blood pressure was “really high” or “really low” because he would get confused and could overdose on insulin if he programmed his insulin pump incorrectly. Id. at 20.

         In response, the Commissioner did not argue that the ALJ discussed or weighed Ms. Jones' testimony.[3] Id. at 20-21. The Commissioner argued that the ALJ's error in failing to address Ms. Jones' testimony was harmless because Ms. Jones' testimony was either irrelevant or cumulative of Claimant's testimony and the medical evidence considered by the ALJ. Id. The Commissioner then argued that Ms. Jones' testimony that Claimant used an insulin pump was cumulative of the medical records, and that Ms. Jones' testimony that Claimant did not care whether he lived or died was cumulative of Claimant's own testimony. Id. at 21. But the Commissioner did not argue that Ms. Jones' testimony that Claimant required assistance to make adjustments to his insulin pump was cumulative. Id. Instead, the Commissioner argued that this testimony was speculative and irrelevant. Id.

         An ALJ must “state the weight he accords to each item of impairment evidence and the reasons for his decision to accept or reject that evidence, including all testimony presented at the previous hearing or any subsequent hearings.” See Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567, 1574 (11th Cir. 1990) (noting that the ALJ did not review or give reasons for rejecting the claimant's daughter's or neighbor's testimony) (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 619, 623 (11th Cir. 1986)); see also Osborn v. Barnhart, 194 F. App'x. 654, 666 (11th Cir. 2006) (“We have held that an ALJ must ‘state specifically the weight accorded each item of evidence and the reasons for his decision.'”) (quotation omitted). This includes lay testimony from family members. See De Olazabal v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r., 579 F. App'x 827, 832 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d); SSR 06-3p); Lucas, 918 F.2d at 1574; Osborn, 194 F. App'x. at 666; Martinez v. Berryhill, No. 3:15-cv-1311-J-JRK, 2017 WL 765387, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 28, 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c); SSR 06-3p). An ALJ's failure to address a family member's lay testimony is reversible error. See Lucas, 918 F.2d at 1574; Martinez, 2017 WL 765387, at *3; Harris v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 6:08-cv-886-Orl-GJK, 2009 WL 1783434, at *12 (M.D. Fla. June 18, 2009) (stating that the ALJ's decision must be reversed and remanded because the court could not determine from the record whether the ALJ overlooked the lay witness testimony, gave it some weight, or completely disregarded it). However, the error is harmless if the lay testimony is cumulative of other evidence in the record such that its rejection was implicit in the ALJ's decision. See De Olazabal, 579 F. App'x at 832; Osborn, 194 F. App'x. at 666; Martinez, 2017 WL 765387, at *3; Cochran v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 6:15-cv-662-Orl-DAB, 2016 WL 3219644, at *3 (M.D. Fla. June 10, 2016); Harris, 2009 WL 1783434, at *12.

         Here, it is undisputed that the ALJ did not explicitly discuss or weigh Ms. Jones' testimony. Thus, the sole issue before the Court is whether the ALJ's ...


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