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Kline v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 6, 2018

JOSEPH KLINE, Plaintiff,



         Before the Court is Plaintiff Joseph Kline's Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on January 25, 2017. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his claim 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 REVERSED AND REMANDED pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Social Security Act Eligibility, the ALJ 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. The impairment must be severe, making the claimant unable to do his previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 - 404.1511, 416.905 - 416.911. 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 May 15, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Tr. at 197, 194-95). Plaintiff asserted an onset date of March 10, 2014. (Id. at 194). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on July 11, 2014 and on reconsideration on August 22, 2014. (Id. at 94, 114). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Hope G. Grunberg held a hearing on September 22, 2015. (Id. at 46-83). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 27, 2015. (Id. at 25-40). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability from March 10, 2014, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 40).

         On January 9, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1-6). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in the United States District Court on January 25, 2017. This case is ripe for review. The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 12).

         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 he 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)).[1] 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) can perform his 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).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018. (Tr. at 27). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 10, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease; left shoulder rotator cuff tear with impingement syndrome and history of surgery; light shoulder tendinopathy; asthma; obstructive sleep apnea; history of ventricular arrhythmia and loop recorder implant; and obesity.” (Id. at 28). At step three, the ALJ determined 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. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (Id. at 31).

         At step four, the ALJ found the following:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR [§] 404.1567(b) except the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He should avoid workplace hazards including unprotected heights, commercial driving, and dangerous, moving machinery. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, vibration, and respiratory irritants such as fumes, dusts, odors, gases, and areas of poor ventilation. He can frequently reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities. Due to the combination of his symptoms and impairments, the claimant is limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out simple, routine and repetitive tasks.

(Id. at 32).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a school bus driver, security guard, or newspaper delivery driver. (Id. at 38). The ALJ considered Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, and found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Id. at 38-40). The ALJ noted that the vocational expert identified the following representative occupations that Plaintiff was able to perform: (1) Cashier II, DOT # 211.462-010, light, SVP2; (2) cleaner, housekeeping, DOT # 323.687-014, light, SVP 2; and (3) mail clerk/mailroom clerk, DOT # 209-687-026, light, SVP 2. (Id. at 39).[2] The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from March 10, 2014, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 40).

         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) (court must scrutinize the entire record to determine reasonableness of factual findings).

         II. ...

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