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Childress v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Florida, Miami Division

March 26, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This case challenges a denial of social security benefits. Plaintiff Carolyn Veronica Childress and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, filed cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 2');">23-2');">2; 2');">26]. The Commissioner's motion also served as her opposition response to Plaintiff's motion. [ECF No. 2');">27]. Although the Undersigned's scheduling order required Plaintiff to file a response to the Commissioner's motion and authorized Plaintiff to file a reply in support of her motion [ECF No. 2');">22');">2, ¶¶ 3-4], Plaintiff did not file the mandatory response or optional reply, and the time to do so has long expired. After the parties consented to full magistrate-judge jurisdiction, United States District Judge Joan A. Lenard referred the entire case to the Undersigned. [ECF Nos. 2');">20-2');">21].

         As explained below, the Court denies Plaintiff's summary judgment motion, grants the Commissioner's summary judgment motion, and enters a final judgment in the Commissioner's favor.

         I. Background

         When the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) rendered her decision, Plaintiff was 54 years old and approximately two months from turning 55. (R. 17, 57).[2');">2" name="FN2');">2" id="FN2');">2">2');">2] Plaintiff worked previously as a janitor, personal care aide, food deliverer, and parking lot attendant. (R. 37-38, 2');">259-2');">260, 300). She also briefly worked as a janitor at Walmart after her alleged impairments began. (R. 37-38). She has a high-school education. (R. 55).

         In November 2');">2012');">2, Plaintiff applied for social security benefits, alleging disability with an onset date of August 2');">2012');">2, due to chronic right knee pain, disc problems in the lower back, arthritis in her hands, and depression and anxiety. (R. 103-04, 110-11, 119, 12');">28). The Commissioner denied the applications initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff asked for a hearing. (R. 103-38, 168). In June 2');">2015, Plaintiff appeared with an attorney before the ALJ. (R. 50-102');">2). A vocational expert (the “VE”) provided testimony at the hearing. (R. 90-100).

         In September 2');">2015, the ALJ issued an opinion, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 17-44). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-5). The Commissioner's final decision is now subject to review.

         II. The Five-Step Evaluation Process for Disability Claims

         In evaluating a claim for disability benefits, an ALJ must follow the five steps outlined in 2');">20 C.F.R. §§ 416.92');">20(a) and 404.152');">20, which the Court summarizes as follows:

1. Step one. Is the claimant performing substantial gainful activity? If not, then an ALJ next determines:
2');">2. Step two. Does the claimant have one or more severe impairments? If the claimant does, then an ALJ next considers:
3. Step three. Does the claimant have a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 2');">20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled; if not, then an ALJ must determine claimant's RFC residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and then determine:
4. Step four. Based on the RFC, can claimant perform his or her past relevant work? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, then an ALJ must finally determine:
5. Step five. Based on the claimant's age, education, and work experience, and the RFC, can he or she perform other work? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. If not, then the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits.

See, e.g., Phillips v. Barnhart, 2');">232');">2');">357 F.3d 12');">232');">2, 12');">237 (11th Cir. 2');">2004).

         In reviewing the decision, the Court must consider the record as a whole and determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and whether substantial evidence in the record supports his or her findings of fact. Powers v. Heckler, 2');">2d 1151');">738 F.2');">2d 1151, 1152');">2 (11th Cir. 1984). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 12');">240 n. 8 (internal citation omitted).

         While the Court applies a presumption in favor of an ALJ's finding of fact, no such presumption applies to an ALJ's legal conclusions. Thus, the Court must reverse if an ALJ incorrectly applied the law or if the decision fails to provide the Court with sufficient reasoning to determine whether the law was properly applied. Perez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 6:06-CV-1648-ORL-19KRS, 2');">2008 WL 191036, at *5 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 2');">22');">2, 2');">2008). An ALJ's failure to specify the weight given to evidence contrary to her decision, or failure to give the reason for discrediting evidence, is reversible error. Hart v. Astrue, No. 3:10-cv-531-J-TEM, 2');">2011 WL 4356149, at *5 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 19, 2');">2011).

         The Court is authorized to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of an ALJ, with or without remand. 42');">2 U.S.C. § 405(g); Perez, 2');">2008 WL 191036, at * 5.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Under step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 2');">24). Although Plaintiff did work at Walmart for a short period after the onset date, the ALJ classified the employment as an “unsuccessful work attempt that occurred after a significant break in the continuity of her work and ended due to her impairments.” (R. 2');">24).

         Under step two, the ALJ found that claimant had several severe physical and mental impediments. (R. 2');">24-2');">25). The severe physical impairments were osteoarthritis of the spine and obesity. (R. 2');">24).[3]

         Under step three, the ALJ found 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 2');">20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 2');">25-31).

         Under step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has an RFC to perform “medium work” subject to some other limitations. (R. 31). The additional physical limitations are that Plaintiff “can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, but never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds.” (R. 31). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff “can tolerate frequent exposure to cold, humidity, and hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.” (R. 31).

         Under step five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a janitor. (R. 37). But the ALJ also made two alternative findings. First, she found that the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, known as the “Grids, ” dictated a finding of “not disabled” given that Plaintiff was an individual closely approaching advanced age, had at least a high school education, and could communicate in English. (R. 39). Second, through the help of the VE, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff would ...

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