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Barth v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

March 27, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This case has been referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for disposition pursuant to the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, based on the parties' consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction (see ECF Nos. 7, 9). It is now before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83.

         Upon review of the record before this court, it is the opinion of the undersigned that the findings of fact and determinations of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence; thus, the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.


         On October 25, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI and alleged therein disability beginning September 1, 2004 (tr. 11).[1] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and thereafter she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). An initial hearing was held on July 25, 2014, and a second hearing was held on March 19, 2015 (see tr. 58, 43). On June 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff “not disabled, ” as defined under the Act, at any time through the date of his decision (tr. 26-35). The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this court. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). This appeal followed.


         In denying Plaintiff's claim for SSI, the ALJ made the following relevant findings (see tr. 26-35):

(a) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after October 25, 2012, the date she applied for SSI;
(b) Plaintiff had the following severe impairments during the relevant period[2]: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, and bipolar disorder;
(c) Plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
(d) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) “except in function by function terms.” She could lift and/or carry 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally, sit a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and stand/walk a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She could understand, remember, and carry out instructions but was limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. Her ability to deal with changes in the work setting and to use judgment were limited to simple work-related decisions; and she could respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and the public occasionally;
(e) Plaintiff has no past relevant work;
(f) Plaintiff was born on September 18, 1971, and was 41 years old-or, a “younger individual” aged between 18 and 49-on the date she applied for SSI;
(g) Plaintiff has a limited education and is able to communicate in English;
(h) Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because Plaintiff's past work is unskilled;
(i) Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed; therefore, she was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, during the relevant period.


         Review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence from the record and was a result of the application of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or that proper legal standards were not applied.”); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.” Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision will not be disturbed if in light of the record as a whole the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The Act defines a disability as an “inability 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To qualify as a disability the physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the claimant is not only unable to do her previous work, “but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(g), the Commissioner analyzes a disability claim in five steps:

1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, her impairments must be severe before she can be found disabled.
3. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity and she has severe impairments that have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and if her impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
4. If the claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled.
5. Even if the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her RFC and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

         The claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that keeps her from performing her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912. If the claimant establishes such an impairment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy which, given the claimant's impairments, the claimant can perform. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1052 (11th Cir. 1986). If the Commissioner carries this burden, the claimant must then prove she cannot perform the work suggested by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).


         A. Plaintiff's Personal Background and Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff quit school in the eleventh grade and did not obtain a GED (tr. 60). In 2009, when she was approximately thirty-eight years of age, she began receiving mental health treatment at the Lakeview Center for symptoms including difficulty sleeping, depression, irritability, and mood swings (see ECF No. 13 at 2).

         At her hearing held March 19, 2015, in response to a question from the ALJ about her activities of late, Plaintiff testified that she takes care of her three-year-old daughter and attends counseling on a weekly basis for “bipolar and depression, and schizophrenia . . . [and/or] schizo-affective disorder” and that she goes to Lakeview once every three months (tr. 44). She noted she had only recently been assessed with “schizo-affective disorder, bipolar type, ” in approximately February of 2015 (tr. 46). Plaintiff reported that she hears voices and sees things that are not there, noting that the hallucinations have been occurring for seven years, with the auditory hallucinations occurring on a daily basis and the visual ones occurring once or twice a week (id.). Plaintiff additionally reported she suffers from depression and related symptoms, as well as frequent mood swings (tr. 47-48). As of the date of her hearing, Plaintiff had not been prescribed any medications targeted at the hallucinations, but she had been prescribed Latuda for her bipolar, Vistaril for her anxiety, and Celexa for her depression, although she stated that only the depression medication was effective (tr. 47, 49-50).

         Continuing, Plaintiff testified that she leaves her house only about two to three times a week for things such as grocery shopping or walking, noting that she limits her outings due to her inability to get along with people and her tendency to anger quickly and argue with others (tr. 48). Plaintiff stated the Latuda was not working because in the past two to three weeks she found herself becoming agitated very easily, even with her daughter, and that had not happened before (tr. 50). Plaintiff further testified that she gets “real depressed, ” wants to hurt herself, and actually had tried to do so by stabbing herself in February of 2014, which resulted in a voluntary hospitalization (see id.). Plaintiff also stated that sometimes she is too depressed to get out of bed, shower, or get dressed, and that she feels worthless (tr. 46-47). She testified that she previously had “a real bad drinking problem” but has not used alcohol since her hospitalization except for “two little shots” on New Years Eve; she also stated she has not smoked marijuana since her hospitalization (tr. 44, 50-51).[4]

         B. Plaintiff's History of Mental Health Treatment

         (1) Evidence that Pre-dates the Relevant Period

         Plaintiff presented to the Lakeview Center on various occasions between 2009 and 2011, as well as in 2012, prior to the commencement of the relevant period on October 25, 2012. Records from this time frame show that Plaintiff was assessed with GAF scores of 58 and 60[5] and was treated for or assessed with bipolar disorder, type 1 and 2, depression, and other mental health issues or symptoms (see, e.g., tr. 419, 427, 460). Plaintiff was prescribed various medications, including Lexapro, Risperdal, Vistaril, Abilify, and Zoloft (see, e.g., tr. 367-68, 371-72, 427, 444, 450, 453). In May 2011, Plaintiff reported she had recently learned she was pregnant, so she discontinued all of her psychotropic medications and was “excited” about the fact that, without the medications, her mood was stable and she was sleeping well (tr. 430). A mental status examination conducted on May 19, 2011, revealed normal speech, “more concrete” thought processes, appropriate affect, and full orientation with no psychotic symptoms and no suicidal/homicidal ...

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