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Barnes v. Berryhill

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

July 11, 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

         Debra Marie Barnes (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('s)”) final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of carpal tunnel syndrome, ankle injury (“broke 3 bones plate and screws”), neck surgery (“bulged, herniated dis[c]s, ” “plate inserted”), anxiety, “major depression, ” fibromyalgia, “nerve imping[e]ment in shoulders, ” “nerve imping[e]ment in elbow”, tinnitus, hearing loss, and “neck and back spasms.” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 9; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed June 19, 2017, at 75, 213. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on May 31, 2013, alleging an onset disability date of October 30, 2011. Tr. at 154.[2] Plaintiff's application was denied initially, see Tr. at 85, 86, 75-84, and was denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 100, 101, 87-99.

         On June 19, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which he heard from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 37-74. The ALJ issued a Decision on September 11, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 30. The Appeals Council received additional evidence in the form of a brief from Plaintiff's lawyer. Tr. at 4, 5; see Tr. at 273-79 (brief). On February 10, 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 April 6, 2017, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes the following main argument: in assigning “great weight to parts of [treating physician Sunday Ero, M.D.]'s opinion but no weight to the parts of the opinion that would lead to a finding of disability[, ] . . . [t]he ALJ failed to articulate good cause for rejecting the parts of the opinion that would have resulted in a finding of disability.” Plaintiff's Brief (Doc. No. 17; “Pl.'s Br.”), filed September 20, 2017, at 11. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that “[t]he ALJ did not offer valid reasons for discounting Dr. Ero's opinion for the period prior to the date of Dr. Ero's examination of [Plaintiff] in January 2014.” Pl.'s Br. at 15. On November 17, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 18; “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, [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 sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 22-30. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 30, 2011, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 22 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease, left shoulder AC joint osteoarthritis, left hand carpal tunnel syndrome, and history of left ankle fracture status post open reduction internal fixation.” Tr. at 22 (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 24 (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) except: she can only stand and walk for 2 hours in an 8 hour day and sit for 6 hours with no more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs; she is limited to occasionally reaching overhead with the left upper extremity and occasionally pushing/pulling with the upper extremities. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and must avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery.

Tr. at 25 (emphasis omitted).

         At step four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that Plaintiff is “capable of performing past relevant work as a claims examiner.” Tr. at 30 (emphasis and citation omitted). The ALJ was not required to and did not make alternative findings regarding the fifth and final step of the sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 30. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from October 30, 2011, through the date of th[e D]decision.” Tr. at 30 (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). 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 undersigned sets out the parties' arguments, the applicable law, and a summary of the relevant medical ...

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