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Schnitzlein v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 23, 2018

BREANNA SCHNITZLEIN, substituted party for Tina L. Schnitzlein (deceased), Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MAC R. MCCOY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This cause comes before the Court on Plaintiff Breanna Schnitzlein's Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on October 21, 2016. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying the claim of Tina L. Schnitzlein (“claimant”) 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, Procedural History, the ALJ's 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505.[1] The impairment must be severe, making the claimant unable to do her previous work, or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 -404.1511. 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 August 30, 2014, the claimant filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits with an alleged onset date of December 31, 2010. (Tr. at 168). The application was denied initially on September 26, 2013 and upon reconsideration on December 2, 2013. (Tr. at 88, 104). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William G. Reamon on October 22, 2015. (Tr. at 31-64). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 4, 2015. (Tr. at 13-30). The ALJ found the claimant not to be under a disability at any time from December 31, 2010, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2015, the date last insured. (Tr. at 25).

         On June 6, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. (Tr. at 5-10). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in this Court on October 21, 2016. Defendant filed an Answer (Doc. 8) on December 16, 2016. The parties filed memoranda in support. (Docs. 12, 15, 18). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (See Doc. 20). This case is ripe for review.

         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 she 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)).[2] 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) has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her 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).

         As an initial matter, the ALJ found that the claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 30, 2015. (Tr. at 18). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that the claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from December 31, 2010, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2015, the date last insured. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that the claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: “neuropathy, low back disc bulge and fibromyalgia.” (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart. P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526)). (Tr. at 20).

         Based on the evidence, the ALJ determined that the claimant had the RFC to perform “light work” except the claimant “is further limited to occasional climbing and balancing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds; and should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration; and should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards (dangerous moving machinery, unprotected heights, etc.).” (Tr. at 20).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that “[t]hrough the date last insured, the claimant was capable of performing past relevant work as a waitress” because “[t]his work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity.” (Tr. at 25). Specifically, the ALJ noted and found persuasive the vocational expert's (“VE”) testimony that the claimant is able to perform her past work. (Id.). In comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work, the ALJ found that the work did not exceed the claimant's RFC. (Id.). The ALJ found, therefore, that “the claimant is able to perform this type of work as actually and generally performed.” (Id.).

         Because the ALJ found that the claimant could perform her past relevant work, the ALJ did not proceed to step five. (See id.). In sum, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not under a disability, at any time from December 31, 2010, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2015, the date last insured. (Id.).

         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 ...


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