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Moctezuma v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 27, 2018




         Plaintiff, Arlene Moctezuma, seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for supplemental security income. As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was not based on substantial evidence and did not employ proper legal standards, the decision is reversed in part and remanded for further consideration.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on May 10, 2013. (Tr. 226.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 133, 142.) Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 148.) Upon Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 34-65.) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 20-28.) Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. 1-4.) Plaintiff then timely filed a Complaint with this Court. (Dkt. 1.) The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1976, claimed disability beginning on January 1, 2010, and later amended her alleged onset date to May 10, 2013. (Tr. 226, 243.) Plaintiff has a limited education, completing school through the fourth grade. (Tr. 249.) Plaintiff's past relevant work experience includes work as an assembly bench worker. (Id.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to mental issues, forgetting things, headaches, and right side bone pain. (Tr. 248.)

         In rendering the decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not performed substantial gainful activity since May 10, 2013, the application date. (Tr. 22.) After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: epilepsy, osteoarthritis, obesity, and affective mood disorder. (Id.) Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined that 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. (Id.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with additional limitations. (Tr. 23.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff cannot perform work requiring over-the-shoulder work with her right hand. (Id.) The ALJ also limited Plaintiff to performing work involving low stress, no high production demands, and simple, routine, repetitive tasks with simple instructions. (Id.) Plaintiff was further restricted from interaction with the general public and only minimal contact with others at the worksite. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ found Plaintiff can occasionally lift and carry twenty pounds, frequently lift and carry ten pounds, and stand, walk, and sit six hours out of an eight-hour workday. (Id.)

         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 fully credible. (Tr. 24.) Considering Plaintiff's noted impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an assembly bench worker. (Tr. 27.) Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 28.)


         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning that the claimant must be unable to engage in 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that 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. § 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and, (4) 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 the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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). 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)); 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).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court may not decide the facts anew, 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 ...

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