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Neal v. Berryhill

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

July 6, 2018

DEBRA KAYE NEAL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ELIZABETH M. TIMOTHY, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case has been referred to the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rules 72.1(A), 72.2(D) and 72.3 of this court relating to review of administrative determinations under the Social Security Act (“Act”) and related statutes, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. It is now before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Act for review of a final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401-34.

         Upon review of the record before this court, it is the opinion of the undersigned that the findings of fact and determinations of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence; thus, the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 12, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, and in the application she alleged disability beginning on May 15, 2008 (tr. 21, 250).[1] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and thereafter Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on May 29, 2015 (tr. 21). On July 1, 2015, Plaintiff amended her onset date to November 20, 2013 (tr. 172). On August 17, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff “not disabled, ” as defined under the Act, at any time through the date of his decision (tr. 21-29). Next, on May 16, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (tr. 2). Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this court. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). This appeal followed.

         II. FINDINGS OF THE ALJ

         On August 17, 2015, the ALJ made several findings relative to the issues raised in this appeal (tr. 21-29):

1) Plaintiff last met the insured status requirement of the Act on December 31, 2013[2];
2) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her initial alleged onset date of May 15, 2008, through her date last insured;
3) Through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: hypertension, hypothyroidism, obesity, mild lumbar degenerative disc disease (“DDD”), and lumbar facet disease;
4) Through the date last insured, Plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
5) Through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c);
6) Through the date last insured, Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a real estate agent, as such work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by her RFC;
7) Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, at any time between May 15, 2008, the initial alleged onset date, and December 31, 2013, the date last insured.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence from the record and was a result of the application of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or that proper legal standards were not applied.”); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.” Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision will not be disturbed if in light of the record as a whole the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The Act defines a disability as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To qualify as a disability the physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the claimant is not only unable to do her previous work, “but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(g), the Commissioner analyzes a disability claim in five steps:

         1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled.

         2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, her impairments must be severe before she can be found disabled.

         3. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity and she has severe impairments that have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and if her impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.

         4. If the claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled.

         5. Even if the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her RFC and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

         The claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that keeps her from performing her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. If the claimant establishes such an impairment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy which, given the claimant's impairments, the claimant can perform. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1052 (11th Cir. 1986). If the Commissioner carries this burden, the claimant must then prove she cannot perform the work suggested by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).

         IV. BACKGROUND

         This case comes before the court with an unusual backdrop. As noted above, Plaintiff amended her onset date in this case to November 20, 2013, or slightly more than one month prior to the expiration of her insured status for DIB purposes. And in amending her onset date, Antonio Bruni, the attorney who ...


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