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Freeman v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 23, 2018




         Plaintiff, Michael Freeman, seeks judicial review of the denial of his claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”). As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was not based on substantial evidence and did not employ proper legal standards, the Court recommends that the decision be reversed and remanded for further consideration.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff received SSI benefits beginning May 5, 2000, at age seven, when the ALJ determined that he was disabled under the SSI standards for a child under the age of eighteen. (Tr. 52, 60, 122.) After Plaintiff reached the age of eighteen, the Commissioner reconsidered Plaintiff's eligibility for SSI under the rules for determining disability in adults and determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled. (Tr. 64-66, 69-81.) Upon Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 489-506.) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled since August 1, 2011, and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 511.) Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied. (Tr. 1-6.) Plaintiff appealed on October 22, 2015, and this Court remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. (Tr. 557-80.) While Plaintiff's appeal was pending, he filed a new application for benefits, which the Appeals Council consolidated with the remanded case. (Tr. 583-84.) After holding a second hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 10, 2017. (Tr. 404-20.) Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court. (Dkt. 1.) The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1993, claimed disability beginning as a child on May 17, 2000. (Tr. 122.) Plaintiff has a limited education. (Tr. 125.) Plaintiff has no past relevant work experience. (Id.) Plaintiff alleged disability due to a learning disability. (Id.)

         In rendering the decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had never performed substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 419.) After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, dependent and schizotypal personality disorder, affective disorder, and learning disorder. (Tr. 407.) Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work “except he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffold but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs.” (Tr. 412.) The ALJ further limited Plaintiff's RFC in finding that Plaintiff can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and workplace hazards, but can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with occasional changes in a routine work setting and “no production rate pace work.” (Id.) The ALJ also concluded that Plaintiff can occasionally interact with coworkers but is limited to minimal, superficial interaction with the general public. (Id.) In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not fully credible. (Tr. 413.)

         As noted, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work. (Tr. 419.) Given Plaintiff's background and RFC, the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a garment sorter, laundry folder, and retail marker. (Tr. 420.) Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Id.)


         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning that the claimant must be unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and, (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). While the court reviews the Commissioner's decision with deference to the factual findings, no such deference is given to the legal conclusions. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court may not decide the facts anew, re-weigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ, even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's failure to apply the correct law, or to give the reviewing court sufficient reasoning for determining that he or she has conducted the proper legal analysis, mandates reversal. Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066. The scope of review is thus limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are ...

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