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De La Torre v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

March 30, 2018

SAILYN DE LA TORRE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ANDREA M. SIMONTON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Sailyn De La Torre ("Plaintiff") and by Defendant, Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Defendant"), ECF Nos. [24] and [25].[1] The Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment was also styled as an opposition to the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. [26]. The Plaintiff has filed a combined Reply to her Motion for Summary Judgment and an Opposition to the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. [27]. Pursuant to the consent of the Parties, the Honorable Kathleen M. Williams, United States District Judge, has referred this matter to the undersigned to take all necessary and proper action as required by law, through and including trial by jury and entry of final judgment, ECF Nos. [15] [17].

         For the reasons stated below, the undersigned DENIES the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and GRANTS the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Prior Proceedings

         On July 1, 2015, Plaintiff was found disabled as of September 1, 2002, and eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (R. 33, 104-111).[2] On December 8, 2014, during Plaintiff's redetermination proceeding, Plaintiff was found to be no longer disabled as of December 1, 2014. (R. 104-111). Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) which took place on March 8, 2016. (R. 50-82).

         At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by an attorney; and, Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) testified. On April 18, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding, among other things, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act because medical improvement occurred as of December 1, 2014, and the Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs that existed in the national economy from December 1, 2014. (R. 27-49). Plaintiff then requested that the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, which was denied on August 8, 2016. (R. 1-8). Thus, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of Defendant and is ripe for review. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the pending Complaint seeking judicial review of the administrative proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), ECF No. [1]. Plaintiff requests this Court to reverse the Defendant's denial of benefits or remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint, ECF No. [13].

         B. Motions for Summary Judgment

         The Parties have filed their respective Motions for Summary Judgment. Generally, the Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that the Plaintiff, who was twenty-eight at the time of the ALJ's decision, is no longer disabled due to her bipolar disorder, ECF No. [24] at 3. The Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that the opinions of the Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Dr. Marcos E. Cintron, M.D., were only entitled to little weight, and argues that the ALJ failed to give sufficient reasons to support that determination. The Plaintiff further challenges the ALJ's determination that the Plaintiff was not credible in regards to her testimony about her symptoms related to her bipolar disorder. The Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ failed to take into account the episodic nature of the Plaintiff's mental disorder from the longitudinal perspective, and thus failed to properly consider that condition when determining the Plaintiff's residual functioning capacity (“RFC”).[3] Finally, the Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to demonstrate that Plaintiff's current symptoms related to her mental disorder had improved from those in 2005, when she was initially determined to be disabled, and therefore her benefits should have been terminated.

         The Defendant contends that the ALJ properly determined that Dr. Cintron's opinions were only entitled to little weight since they were not supported by the objective medical evidence, including Dr. Cintron's own treating notes which documented the Plaintiff's unremarkable mental status, ECF No. [25] at 13, 14. Defendant further contends that the ALJ correctly found that the medical record demonstrates that the Plaintiff basically was stable and only showed significant abnormalities in July of 2015, when she did not take her medication, ECF No. [25] at 14. The Defendant argues that the Plaintiff's function reports demonstrate that her daily activities were inconsistent with Dr. Cintron's conclusions regarding the Plaintiff's ability to function. Finally, the Defendant asserts that the ALJ properly evaluated the Plaintiff's claims regarding her symptoms, and properly determined her residual functional capacity based upon the medical evidence, and the Plaintiff's activities.

         Thus, the fully briefed cross-motions for summary judgment present the following two issues to be determined by the undersigned:

1) whether the ALJ erred in according little weight to the opinion of the Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, which resulted in a mental functioning capacity finding that was not based on substantial evidence; and,
2) whether the ALJ's credibility finding regarding the Plaintiff was supported by substantial evidence, ECF Nos. [24] at 1.[4]

         For the following reasons and under the limited standard of review that governs this case, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) findings.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review of the ALJ's decision in disability cases is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, (1971); Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, but less than preponderance and is generally defined as such relevant evidence which a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997); Bloodworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         When reviewing the evidence, the Court may not reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, and even if the evidence “preponderates” against the Commissioner's decision, the reviewing court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991); Baker v. Sullivan, 880 F.2d 319, 321 (11th Cir. 1989). This restrictive standard of review, however, applies only to findings of fact. No presumption of validity attaches to the Commissioner's conclusions of law, which are reviewed de novo, including the determination of the proper standard to be applied in reviewing claims. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991) (“The Commissioner's failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.”); Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d at 1529.

         III. FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYSIS

         A person who applies for social security disability benefits must prove her disability before being entitled to those benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512.[5] However, after disability is determined, the Commissioner must periodically review whether an individual is entitled to continued benefits and whether there has been medical improvement such that the individual can engage in substantial gainful ...


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