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Jordan v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 29, 2018




         Plaintiff Nicole Anna Jordan seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs and the applicable law. For the reasons discussed herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.[1]

         I. Issues on Appeal[2]

         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) properly evaluated the severity of Plaintiff's physical impairments at step two and considered them in assessing Plaintiff's ability to work; (2) whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of the consultative and treating physicians in determining Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (3) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination at step five.

         II. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, a high school graduate and age 38 at the time of the decision, filed her application for DIB on May 9, 2012, alleging her disability began September 28, 2010 due to Graves' disease, brain anomaly, severe anxiety, depression, rapid pulse and high blood pressure. Tr. 83, 151, 249-57, 404. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on October 23, 2012. Tr. 158-63. Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before ALJ Gregory Hamel on February 12, 2015. Tr. 60, 92-131. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and vocational expert (“VE”) Dawn Bergren testified by video-teleconference. Tr. 92-131. On August 10, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from September 28, 2010 through December 31, 2014, the date last insured. Tr. 64-85. In his decision, at step two of the sequential process, [3] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and panic disorder without agoraphobia. Tr. 68. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listing. Tr. 68-70. Prior to step four, the ALJ then determined that during the relevant period Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations:

[Plaintiff] has been able to carry out only routine and repetitive tasks that do not require more than occasional public contact or more than occasional interactions with co-workers. [Plaintiff] can carry out these functions consistently over the course of the work day and work week.

Tr. 74. Next, at step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as a claims adjuster or teacher's aide, because these occupations are skilled and semi-skilled and exceed Plaintiff's RFC, which limits her to the performance of routine and repetitive tasks. Tr. 83. Relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform the requirements of unskilled representative occupations such as automobile cleaner, floor worker, housekeeper and small parts assembler. Tr. 84. As a result, he found Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 85.

         III. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted). The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[4] Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, i.e., evidence that must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, and 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) (internal citations omitted).

         The Eleventh Circuit has restated that “[i]n determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, we give great deference to the ALJ's fact findings.” Hunter v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 808 F.3d 818, 822 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). 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 or found that the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Su livan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); Barnes v. Su livan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991); cf. Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings). The Court reviews the Commissioner's conclusions of law under a de novo standard of review. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         IV. Discussion

         A. Severity of Plaintiff's physical impairments

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ erred by determining Plaintiff's alleged physical impairments - specifically, Graves' disease, eye symptoms and headaches - were not severe impairments, and he failed to consider the combined effects of Plaintiff's alleged physical impairments along with her mental impairments in determining Plaintiff's RFC. Doc. 21 at 15-19. The Commissioner responds substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff physical impairments are not severe, and the ALJ considered these impairments when assessing Plaintiff's RFC. Id. at 19-21.

         The ALJ discussed in detail Plaintiff's treatment for her physical impairments, beginning with her treatment for papillary thyroid carcinoma, for which she underwent a total thyroidectomy in November 2005. Tr. 68. The ALJ stated there was no recurrence of the cancer, and medical tests and records from soon after the surgery and October 2014, January 2015 and February 2015 showed Plaintiff was completely asymptomatic. Tr. 68-69, 493-94, 603, 696-97, 714. Plaintiff's examinations in late 2014 and early 2015 showed Plaintiff was in no distress and had no joint tenderness or swelling. Tr. 696-97. She had no complaints of pain, mylalgias or arthralgias, no headaches or bone pain, and no visual disturbance. Tr. 68, 696-97. The ALJ further discussed Plaintiff's earlier medical records for treatment of Graves' disease and headaches:

Earlier medical reports describe treatment for Graves' disease (with ophthalmopathy noted on CT imaging). Records from the Endocrine Group show that Ms. Jordan reported less severe symptoms related to thyroid disease in February 2007, where earlier reports showed some palpitations and fatigue (Exhibits 2F and 3F). Mark Yacono, M.D., treating physician, noted that the condition occasionally affected daily activities but did not affect quality of sleep (Exhibit 1F). A thyroid ultrasound showed no residual mass in October 2007 (Exhibit 2F. page 18), and a more recent study in October 2014 likewise revealed no nodule or suspicious mass (Exhibit l7F).
It is noteworthy that at the time she was actively treated for the thyroid disease Ms. Jordan was regularly employed. Moreover, Dr. Yacono alluded to no ongoing and significant vocationally relevant limitations associated with thyroid or Graves' disease, although Ms. Jordan has used Synthroid (a dosage of 125 mg. is shown in an October 2007 report) (Exhibit 1F/7). An MRI in May 2005 showed no acute intracranial abnormality, although there was a prominent cortical vein seen representing a development venous anomaly (Exhibit 3F, page 1).
Ms. Jordan complained of headache and neck pain in 2007, and the possibility of migraine headaches was raised (Exhibit 3F, pages 13-15). An MRI of the brain in February 2007 showed no acute abnormality, with sinusitis observed on the right side (Exhibit 3F). A CT scan of the head conducted in February 2015, shortly after the insured status expired, likewise revealed no abnormality (Exhibit 27F). In 2007 the claimant was also treated for pleuritic chest pain with pneumonia (Exhibit 3F, page 22). However, there has been no recurrent issues related to this problem or of any reported work restrictions.

Tr. 68-69. After further discussion of Plaintiff's treatment for other medical ailments not at issue here, the ALJ discussed the consultative examination of Joseph Prezio, M.D., who opined in October 2012 that Plaintiff had no physical limitations or restrictions.[5] Tr. 69. Summarizing his reasoning for not finding Plaintiff's alleged physical limitations to be severe and citing to extensive support in the record, the ALJ concluded:

Following the birth of [Plaintiff's] third child in March 2010, the physical conditions noted above did not cause her to be unable to continue working. By contrast, the medical record shows only an intermittent need for treatment, and there is nothing in the medical reports to show that [Plaintiff] stopped work in September due to any specific physical illness. . . . Moreover, it appears that [Plaintiff] received unemployment benefits through at least the fourth quarter of 2012 (Exhibit 7D). While not conclusive on the issue to be determined, this does tend to suggest that Ms. Jordan considered herself able to do some level of work . . . .
In sum, the need for treatment has been sporadic since September 2010, and overall clinical findings on examinations performed by multiple independent medical sources show few clinical findings showing significant functional deficit. Despite allegations of severe complaints, the evidence does not support severe symptoms or functional limitation enduring 12 months despite intermittent need for treatment (Exhibits 16F, page 4; 30F, pages 12, 107, 109-110). Rather clinical findings, including those established after the October 2012 consultative examination, show few or no deficits in ...

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