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Nixon v. Berryhill

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

July 6, 2018

ARETHA D. NIXON, Plaintiff,
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.



         I. Status

         Aretha D. Nixon (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's partially favorable final decision adjudicating her claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is the result of depression and anxiety. See Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 14; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed June 5, 2017, at 67, 77, 93, 110, 214. On July 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset disability date of July 1, 2010 in the DIB application and May 10, 2009 in the SSI application.[2] Tr. at 182-83 (DIB), 184-92 (SSI). The applications were denied initially, Tr. at 67-76, 91, 124-30 (DIB); Tr. at 77-90, 92, 132-34 (SSI); and upon reconsideration, Tr. at 110-21, 122, 142-47 (DIB); Tr. at 93-109, 123, 135-39, 148 (SSI).

         At a hearing on June 10, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”) and from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel. Tr. at 40-66. On August 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a Decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled on alleged onset disability dates, but that Plaintiff became disabled on July 16, 2015 and remained disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 21-33. Consequently, Plaintiff was entitled to SSI with a disability date beginning July 16, 2015, but because Plaintiff's date last insured for purposes of DIB was September 30, 2014 and Plaintiff was not disabled as of that date, Plaintiff's DIB claim was denied. See Tr. at 33.

         On October 4, 2016, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's Decision by the Appeals Council. Tr. at 15. In connection with the request, Plaintiff submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council in the form of medical records and a brief authored by her attorney. Tr. at 4-5 (Appeals Council Exhibits List and Order); see Tr. at 429-32 (medical records), 318-19 (brief). On November 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. at 1-3. On February 3, 2017, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff, emphasizing that she is only challenging the portion of the Decision finding she was not disabled prior to July 16, 2015, makes four arguments on appeal. See Plaintiff's Brief (Doc. No. 16; “Pl.'s Br.”), filed August 7, 2017, at 1-2. Plaintiff contends the ALJ “failed to apply the correct legal standards” in doing the following: (1) “determin[ing] that [Plaintiff] did not have a severe mental impairment prior to July 16, 2015”; (2) evaluating the opinion of treating psychiatrist Louise I. Buhrmann, M.D., P.A.; (3) evaluating the opinions of non-examining state agency psychologists Patricia A. Clark, Psy.D., and Dana Deboskey, Ph.D.; and (4) evaluating Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding the effects of her disorders in finding that Plaintiff “did not suffer from a severe mental impairment from February 8, 2014 through July 1[6], 201[5].” Pl.'s Br. at 2 (summary of arguments); see id. at 6-8 (first argument), 8-10 (second argument), 10-11 (third argument), 12-13 (fourth argument). Responding, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 18; “Def.'s Mem.”) on October 3, 2017. After a thorough review of the entire record and the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be affirmed for the reasons discussed below.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [3] 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 inquiry. See Tr. at 23-32. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 23 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found:

Prior to July 16, 2015, the date [Plaintiff] became disabled, [Plaintiff] had the following medically determinable impairments: depression and anxiety. However, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited (or was expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve consecutive months; therefore, [Plaintiff] did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.

         Tr. at 23-24 (emphasis and citations omitted). Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from severe impairments at step two prior to July 16, 2015, the ALJ did not proceed to other steps with regard to the time period prior to July 16, 2015. See generally Tr. at 28-32. The ALJ found, however, that “[b]eginning on July 16, 2015, [Plaintiff] had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder and agoraphobia.” Tr. at 28 (emphasis and citations omitted).

         At step three, the ALJ ascertained that “[s]ince July 16, 2015, [Plaintiff] has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 28 (emphasis and citation omitted). The ALJ determined that “since July 16, 2015, ” Plaintiff has had the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: [Plaintiff] can perform simple, repetitive, one-to three step tasks. [Plaintiff] can only tolerate occasional interaction with the general public and supervisors, and frequent interaction with co-workers. [Plaintiff] can tolerate occasional changes in the work setting. [Plaintiff] will miss one workday per week due to fatigue, distraction, or lack of concentration.

         Tr. at 29 (emphasis omitted). In reaching this RFC, the ALJ found that “beginning on July 16, 2015, [Plaintiff's] allegations regarding her symptoms and limitations are consistent with the evidence.” Tr. at 29.

         At step four, the ALJ found that “[s]ince July 16, 2015, [Plaintiff] has been unable to perform any past relevant work” because “[t]he demands of [Plaintiff's] past relevant work exceed the [RFC].” Tr. at 31 (emphasis and citations omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“a younger individual age eighteen to forty-nine on July 16, 2015”), education (“at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that “[since] July 16, 2015, . . . there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” Tr. at 31, 32 (emphasis and citations omitted). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was not disabled prior to July 16, 2015, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 32 (emphasis and citations 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 Cir. 1988); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         The four issues Plaintiff raises are addressed in turn, with the caveat that all medical opinions at issue (implicating Plaintiff's second and third issues) are addressed together. Since Plaintiff only challenges the ALJ's findings as they relate to the time period prior to July 16, 2015, the evidence discussed by the undersigned mainly pertains to that time period.

         A. Step Two Findings (Issue One)

         Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's finding at step two that Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe impairment prior to July 16, 2015. See Pl.'s Br. at 6-8. Essentially, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's election not to find her depression and anxiety to be severe within the meaning of step two is not supported by substantial evidence, especially because “there were multiple medical opinions of record that supported a finding that [Plaintiff's] depression and anxiety were severe impairments prior to July 16, 2015.” Id. at 7. Plaintiff also points out that, although not part of the administrative transcript, “[t]here was a prior unfavorable [ALJ's] decision dated February 7, 2014, in which the [prior] ALJ determined that [Plaintiff] suffered from the severe impairment of major depressive disorder versus depressive disorder, not otherwise specified.” Id. at 7-8 (citation omitted). ...

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