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Gilliam v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2018

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


          JAMES R. KLINDT United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Status

         Mary Hendricks Gilliam (“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 “degenerative disc disease, ” “herniated discs, ” “neuritis, ” “hypertension, ” “peripheral neuropathy, ” “vision problems, ” and “memory loss.” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 11; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed May 24, 2017, at 81, 93, 105, 119, 257 (some capitalization and emphasis omitted). On June 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset disability date of June 30, 2011.[2] Tr. at 216-19 (DIB), 220-28 (SSI). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, see Tr. at 81-89, 91, 92, 134-36 (DIB), 105-16, 117, 118, 137-39 (SSI), and were denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 93-102, 103, 104, 146-50 (DIB), 119-31, 132, 133, 151-55 (SSI).

         On September 14, 2015, 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 38-80. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-two (52) years old. Tr. at 43. During the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged disability onset date to May 31, 2013, and in so doing, Plaintiff recognized she would be ineligible for DIB because she was last insured for DIB through a date prior to the amended onset date. Tr. at 40-41, 43; see also Tr. at 19 (Decision discussing the amendment), 251 (form entitled, “Request to Amend Onset Date”). Plaintiff, therefore, withdrew the DIB claim. Tr. at 251.

         The ALJ issued a Decision on October 30, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 19-32. Near the beginning of the Decision, the ALJ dismissed the DIB claim; accordingly, the Decision only addresses Plaintiff's SSI claim. Tr. at 19.[3] Plaintiff then submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council in the form of a brief authored by her counsel, a letter written by William V. Choisser, M.D., J.D., and some medical records. Tr. at 5-6; see Tr. at 337-44 (brief), 345 (letter), 516-21 (medical records). On January 19, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-4, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On March 14, 2017, 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, and they are all related. See Plaintiff's Brief (Doc. No. 19; “Pl.'s Br.”), filed August 23, 2017, at 1. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “improperly minimized [Plaintiff's] upper extremity limitations identified by not only the state agency consultant in November 2013 but also by two separate consultative examining physicians in July 2013 and August 2015.” Pl.'s Br. at 1; see id. at 8-16.[4] Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ “failed to adequately explain why []he was rejecting [R. James Mabry, M.D.'s] state agency consultative opinion regarding [Plaintiff's] upper extremity limitations.” Id. at 1; see id . at 16-19. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's “rationale for rejecting [Kristen Schmits, M.D.'s] examining opinion and Dr. Choisser's examining opinion is not supported by substantial evidence and requires reversal and remand.” Id. at 1; see id. at 19-25. On October 23, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 20; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's arguments.

         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 reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [5] 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 21-32. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 31, 2013, the amended alleged onset date.” Tr. at 21 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: cervical disc disease, obesity, hypertension, adjustment disorder with anxiety, degenerative joint disease of the knees, lumbar/thoracic radiculitis, peripheral neuropathy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” Tr. at 21-22 (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 22 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 CFR [§§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except no more than occasional use of foot/hand controls; no more than occasional overhead reaching; no climbing of ladders and scaffolds or crawling; no more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs or kneeling; no more than frequent balancing, stooping, and crouching; no work around unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; no concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, gases, humidity, and wetness; no exposure to temperature extremes; limited to simple tasks, simple work-related decisions with no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public, time off tasks is accommodated by normal breaks; requires a sit/stand option allowing for change of position at least every 30 minutes with [] brief positional changes lasting no more than 3 minutes at a time where [Plaintiff] remains at the workstation during the positional change.

Tr. at 24 (emphasis omitted). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work” as a “cashier” and a “venetian blind assembler.” Tr. at 30-31 (some emphasis and citations omitted). At step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's age (“47 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 31 (emphasis and citations omitted). Namely, the ALJ identified representative jobs of “office helper, ” “towel folder, ” and “garment sorter.” Tr. at 31-32. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from June 30, 2011, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 32 (emphasis and citation omitted).[6]

         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. ...

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