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Mock v. Berryhill

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

May 9, 2018

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


          GARY R. JONES United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff appeals to this Court from a final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act. (ECF No. 1.) The Commissioner has answered (ECF No. 13), and both parties have filed briefs outlining their respective positions. (ECF Nos. 18, 19.) For the reasons discussed below, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.


         Plaintiff protectively filed his Title II and Title XVI applications, alleging a disability onset date of July 26, 2007. (R. 58-59, 219-41.) His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 149-76.) Following a hearing on April 15, 2015, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision unfavorable to Plaintiff. (R. 38-49.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4.) On July 20, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant appeal. (ECF No. 1.)


         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2000). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include 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) (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)); accord Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991).

         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, and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards, 937 F.2d at 584 n.3; Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560. However, the district court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton v. Dep't Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).

         The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death, or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(I), 423(d)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505 (2005).[1] The impairment must be severe, making Plaintiff unable to do his previous work, or any other substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505-404.1511.

         The ALJ must follow five steps in evaluating a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant has the burden of proving the existence of a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).


         Plaintiff's medical records cover the time period from 2008 to 2015 and are from the Florida Department of Corrections, Palms Medical Group, University Opticians, Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, Shands at the University of Florida, University of Florida Physicians, UF Community Health and Family Medicine, and the Alachua County Health Department. Because Plaintiff's only argument on appeal relates to his mental health impairments, the relevant portions of the medical record, opinion evidence, hearing testimony, and the ALJ's findings are summarized below.

         A. Medical Evidence

         With regard to Plaintiff's mental health, Plaintiff's records from the Florida Department of Corrections disclose that Plaintiff underwent an initial psychological screening in 2008. His mental status examination revealed normal findings, except that Plaintiff appeared sad and experienced persistent tension or stress. Plaintiff reported having a depressed mood, changes in energy, poor concentration, racing thoughts, and symptoms of panic attacks and mania, including mood swings. It was noted that Plaintiff's immediate and remote memory were intact and that his judgment and insight were adequate. Further, his records show that he experienced mood swings in 2009 and that he was on psychotropic medication throughout the time period from 2009 to 2012. (R. 383-419.)

         Plaintiff also visited Meridian Behavioral Helathcare regarding his mental health issues. In 2012 and 2013 the objective findings were normal and appropriate or unremarkable. His diagnoses included bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, depression, and PTSD. (R. 430-37, 448-56.)

         During Plaintiff's other medical visits unrelated to mental health, it was noted that Plaintiff had a history of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and PTSD. Additionally, all of his psychiatric and neurological examination findings as part of his physical exams were normal, including findings that he had a ...

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