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Smith v. Berryhill

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

July 31, 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

         Arthur James Smith, III (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('s)”) final decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of “[cervical fusion of C4-6] for [herniated] dis[c] in [lower back], ” “[b]ack injury, ” arthritis, “[h]igh blood pressure, ” “[h]igh cholesterol, ” “[j]oint problems, ” “high blood sugar, ” and “high trigl[y]cerides.” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 12; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed June 29, 2017, at 76, 87. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on May 8, 2013, alleging an onset disability date of September 25, 2012. Tr. at 167.[2] Plaintiff's application was denied initially, see Tr. at 76-84, 85, 86, and was denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 87-99, 100, 101.

         On June 2, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which he heard from Plaintiff, who appeared with a non-attorney representative, [3] and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 30-74. At the time of this hearing, Plaintiff was 50 years old. Tr. at 35.The ALJ issued a Decision on August 20, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 13-24. The Appeals Council received two pieces of additional evidence, one in the form of a brief from Plaintiff's representative and one in the form of medical records from Orange Park Medical Center. Tr. at 4, 5; see Tr. at 248-49 (brief), Tr. at 883-902 (medical records). 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 26, 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.[4]

         On appeal, Plaintiff claims that “the ALJ erred by not fully and fairly evaluating the medical evidence and failing to fully explain the residual functional capacity [(RFC)] of the Plaintiff in the Decision.” Plaintiff's Memorandum (Doc. No. 17; “Pl.'s Mem.”), filed August 31, 2017, at 7 (emphasis and some capitalization omitted). Plaintiff makes two main arguments: (1) the ALJ failed to define the phrase “additional restrictions, ” thus “caus[ing] the [D]ecision to not be supported by substantial evidence, ” Pl.'s Mem. at 8, and (2) some of the medical opinions considered by the ALJ did not take into account Plaintiff's lower back conditions and because of this the ALJ mischaracterized Plaintiff's limitations, see Pl.'s Mem. at 9-10. On October 30, 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, [5] 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 15-24. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 25, 2012, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 15 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: cervical disc disease with radiculopathy ([status post] cervical fusion of C4-6), diabetes mellitus, degenerative joint disease of the left knee and shoulder ([status post] surgical repairs), Achilles tendinopathy, mild bilateral joint disease of the hips, sleep apnea, mild left carpal tunnel syndrome, left inguinal hernia, hypertension, and obesity.” Tr. at 15 (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 17 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except limited to lifting and carrying up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; with a sit or stand option that allows for a change of position at least every thirty minutes (this is a brief positional change lasting no more than 3-4 minutes at a time where [Plaintiff] remains at the workstation); sit, stand, and walk for up to six hours each in an eight-hour workday; occasional use of foot controls; occasional overhead reaching; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing of ladders or scaffolds; frequent balancing, stooping and crouching; [o]ccasional kneeling; no crawling; no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; and must avoid temperature extremes. Time off task is accommodated by normal breaks.

Tr. at 17 (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 that does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the [Plaintiff]'s [RFC].” Tr. at 22 (emphasis and citation omitted). Specifically, the ALJ found that “[Plaintiff] is able to perform [the work of an Automotive Service Advisor and a Retail Assistant Manager] as actually and generally performed in the national economy . . . .” Tr. at 22. The ALJ then proceeded to make alternative findings regarding the fifth and final step of the sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 23-24. At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“47 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ stated that “there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] also can perform.” Tr. at 23. Relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform the job of “Marker, ” “Cashier II, ” and “Ticket Taker.” Tr. at 23-24. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from September 25, 2012, 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). 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 first sets out a summary of the relevant medical evidence and the applicable law. Then, Plaintiff's arguments are addressed.

         A. Summary of Relevant Medical Evidence

         On September 24, 2012, Plaintiff sustained an injury to his neck, back, and left knee. See Tr. at 250-52. Subsequently, on September 25, 2012, Plaintiff was treated at a CareSpot by Nadeem Maalouli, M.D., who identified that Plaintiff had functional limitations in his neck, lower back, and left knee, and opined that Plaintiff be limited only to desk duties if available. Tr. at 252; see Tr. at 250-54. On that same date, Plaintiff was also treated at Solantic Baptist Urgent Care, where x-rays of his cervical spine showed “an anterior plate and screw fixation at ¶ 4-6[, ] spondylosis at ¶ 7[, and] ...

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