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Sparks v. Berryhill

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

June 5, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]


         I. Status

         Deborah Sparks (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('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 a “back, spine injury” and a “[degenerated] disk neck spinal nerv[e].” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 11; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed August 4, 2017, at 89, 101, 236. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and an application for SSI on September 17, 2013, alleging an onset disability date of July 18, 2013. Tr. at 207 (DIB), 209 (SSI). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, see Tr. at 113, 89-100 (DIB); Tr. at 114, 101-12 (SSI), and were denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 143, 115-28 (DIB); Tr. at 144, 129-42 (SSI).

         On October 20, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which she heard from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 31-88. The ALJ issued a Decision on November 4, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 14-24. On March 27, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-3, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On May 23, 2017, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff raises the following issue: whether the ALJ adequately evaluated the full extent of the evidence from treating physician James Janousek, M.D., who offered medical opinions that Plaintiff cannot work sitting down or standing up and that she cannot perform activities such as “long sitting, standing, . . . stooping, bending or lifting.” Memorandum in Support of Complaint (Doc. No. 16; “Pl.'s Mem.”), filed August 10, 2017, at 7 (quoting Tr. at 451). Specifically, in addressing this issue, Plaintiff makes the argument that although Dr. Janousek's opinions are on a form that looks identical to the form of another treating physician, Arthur Browning, M.D., “the ALJ still has the obligation to comment on the opinions contained on the form and state with specificity the reasons that the opinions are either accepted or rejected.” Pl.'s Mem. at 8. On December 27, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 19; “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 affirmed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [2] 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 16-24. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 18, 2013, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 16 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that “[Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: disorders of the spine status post surgery, a peripheral neuropathy diagnosis, and osteopenia.” Tr. at 16 (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 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 18 (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 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except: with a sit/stand option defined as allowing a person to sit or stand alternatively, at will, provided an individual is within employer tolerances for off task behavior; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She is limited to frequent bilateral overhead reaching and feeling. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness and vibration. She must avoid even moderate exposure to the use of moving machinery and unprotected heights. Work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks, performed in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements, involving only simple work related decisions, and routine work place changes due to pain complaints.

         Tr. at 18 (emphasis omitted).

         At step four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that “[Plaintiff] is unable to perform past relevant work.” Tr. at 23 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“47 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [Plaintiff] can perform, ” including “Ticket Taker, ” “Storage Facility Clerk”, and “Toll Collector.” Tr. at 23 (emphasis and citation omitted); see Tr. at 23-24. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from July 18, 2013, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 24 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         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 ...

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