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Williams v. Berryhill

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

February 26, 2018

TASHA NICOLE WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ANTHONY E. PORCELLI United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for a period of disability, and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was not based on substantial evidence and did not employed proper legal standards, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded.

         I.

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB (Tr. 21). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 102-08). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 115-16). Per Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 37-74). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits (Tr. 21-31). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied (Tr. 1-3). Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court (Doc. 1). The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1977, claimed disability beginning March 13, 2011 (Tr. 21). Plaintiff has high school education (Tr. 30). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work as phlebotomist, warehouse worker, and telephone solicitor (Tr. 30). Plaintiff alleged disability due to tinnitus, arthritis, fibromyalgia, depressive disorder, gastroesophageal reflux disease, lumbar strain, hypothyroidism, migraines, hypertension, adrenalin insufficiency, and cervical degenerative joint disease (Tr. 87). In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through June 30, 2017, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 13, 2011, the alleged onset date (Tr. 23). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, obesity, history of fibromyalgia, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), and major depressive disorder (Tr. 23). Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 24). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except: prohibited from climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, kneeling, stooping, crouching, and crawling; avoid slippery and uneven surfaces, hazardous machinery, and unprotected heights; limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; and work in a low stress job, which is defined as having no fixed production quotas, no hazardous conditions, only occasional decision making required and only occasional changes in the work setting (Tr. 26). In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible (Tr. 27).

         Considering Plaintiff's noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), however, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work (Tr. 30). Given Plaintiff's background and RFC, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a telephone information clerk, account clerk, and order clerk (Tr. 31). Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 31-2).

         II.

         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning he or she must be unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities, which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of his or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (internal quotation marks omitted)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). While the court reviews the Commissioner's decision with deference to the factual findings, no such deference is given to the legal conclusions. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's failure to apply the correct law, or to give the reviewing court sufficient reasoning for determining that he or she has conducted the proper legal analysis, mandates reversal. Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066. The scope of review is thus limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported ...


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