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Owens v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2018

STACEY NICOLE OWENS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          JAMES R. KLINDT United States Magistrate Judge

          I. Status

          Stacey Nicole Owens (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's final decision denying her claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of “a head injury” sustained from a physical assault, that in turn has caused memory problems, dizzy spells, and post traumatic stress disorder. Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 11; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed December 13, 2016, at 59, 73, 257, 260; see also Tr. at 190. On February 8, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset disability date of June 18, 2011, Tr. at 149-50, and on February 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging the same onset date, Tr. at 151-56 (SSI).[2] Plaintiff later amended her alleged disability onset date to June 18, 2012, the approximate date of the physical assault.[3] Tr. at 39, 257. Plaintiff's applications were denied by the Administration. See Tr. at 73-86, 88 (DIB), 59-72, 87, 89-94 (SSI). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. Tr. at 97-98.

         On November 10, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which the ALJ heard from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 33-58. The ALJ issued a Decision on February 20, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 16-26. On July 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-3, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 16, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes three arguments. See Plaintiff's Brief (Doc. No. 18; “Pl.'s Br.”), filed Mach 15, 2017, at 1-2. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's “residual functional capacity [(‘RFC')] assessment failed to reflect proper consideration of [Plaintiff's] headaches.” Pl.'s Br. at 1 (capitalization omitted); see i d . at 8-16. Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ “erroneously evaluated Plaintiff's mental [RFC], improperly relying on a nonexistent ‘mental examination' by [(Disability Determination Services)] and overlooking or ignoring part of [Robin L. Moody, Ph.D.'s] opinion to assume [Plaintiff] could sustain the performance of basic mental tasks with occasional public contact.” Id. at 1 (capitalization omitted); see id. at 16-19. Third, Plaintiff argues that “the ALJ reversibly erred by failing to provide a proper evaluation of [Plaintiff's] subjective complaints and credibility.” Id. at 2 (capitalization omitted); see i d . at 19-25. As part of this third argument, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in failing to take into account her inability to afford treatment. Id. at 24. On June 14, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 21; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's arguments. Then, with leave of Court, see Order (Doc. No. 23), Plaintiff on July 7, 2017 filed a Reply Brief (Doc. No. 24; “Reply”).

         After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be affirmed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [4] an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (“Regulations”), determining as appropriate whether the claimant (1) is currently employed or engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in the Regulations; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (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).

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 18-25. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 18, 2012, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 18 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); depression, and status post traumatic brain injury (TBI) with residual headaches and neurocognitive disorder.” Tr. at 18 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ ascertained that “[Plaintiff] does 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. at 19 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 CFR [§§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except: she can never use a ladder and must avoid all exposure to hazards (i.e., dangerous machinery, unprotected heights). She can perform simple, repetitive tasks and instructions in a work environment with only occasional public contact.

Tr. at 21 (emphasis omitted). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has no past relevant work.” Tr. at 24 (emphasis and citations omitted). At step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's age (“28 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“limited education and is able to communicate in English”), work experience, and RFC, and relied on the testimony of the VE to find Plaintiff is capable of performing work that “exist[s] in significant numbers in the national economy.” Tr. at 24 (emphasis and citations omitted). Namely, the ALJ identified representative jobs of “final inspector” and “housekeeping laundry.” Tr. at 25.

         The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from June 18, 2012, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 25 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Although no deference is given to the ALJ's conclusions of law, findings of fact “are conclusive if . . . supported by ‘substantial evidence' . . . .” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). “Substantial evidence is something ‘more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987)). The substantial evidence standard is met when there is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Falge, 150 F.3d at 1322 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence; rather, the entire record is reviewed to determine whether “the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991) (internal quotation and citations omitted); see also McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         The undersigned addresses Plaintiff's contentions about the medical opinions together with Plaintiff's challenge to the ALJ's assessment of her credibility (Plaintiff's second and third arguments). Following that discussion, the undersigned addresses Plaintiff's argument that the RFC does not ...


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