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Vega v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 14, 2018


          ORDER [1]


         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under the Act. Upon review, the Commissioner's final decision in this case is affirmed.


         On September 12, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability commencing on November 20, 2011, due to lupus, Lyme disease, Chiari malformation, numbness in her hands, migraines, dizziness, blurry vision, seizures, neck and shoulder pain, anxiety, depression, and an aneurysm (Tr. 43-44, 93, 254-261, 285, 318).[3] Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date of disability to January 15, 2014 (Tr. 43, 285). Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 167-169, 171-173, 176-180, 182-186) and Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) 41-72, 187-188). On March 9, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled and issued his unfavorable decision (Tr. 8-40). On April 18, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6). Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. This appeal timely followed (Doc. 1).

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration and which appears in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the ALJ must determine 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. 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 five-step sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.) (Tr. 14). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: a seizure disorder; a Chiari I malformation of the craniovertebral junction (with headaches); neuropathy; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; degenerative joint disease/bursitis of the spine; a bipolar disorder; an anxiety disorder; an attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder; and a substance use disorder in remission (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)) (Tr. 14). But, the ALJ found at step three 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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 17). Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with additional limitations. The claimant can lift, carry, push, or pull 20 pounds occasionally (up to one-third of the workday) and 10 pounds frequently (up to two thirds of the workday), as well as sit, stand, or walk for 6 hours each out of an 8-hour workday. The claimant can frequently use hand controls and frequently handle with both upper extremities. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but can frequently climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can never operate a motor vehicle as part of the work duties. The claimant can have occasional exposure to vibration. The claimant has to avoid all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving machinery. Additionally, the claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; is limited to making simple work-related decisions; and, is limited to having occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public.

(Tr. 19).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. 31).[4] However, after applying the Medical-Vocational Guidelines as a framework for decision making and considering the Vocational Expert's testimony and Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy (Tr. 32-33), and was therefore not under a disability (Tr. 33).

         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 account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision." Foote v. Chater,67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (per ...

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