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Hwang v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and employed proper legal standards, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI (Tr. 154). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims both initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 61-78). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 91). Per Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 30-47). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits (Tr. 10-21). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied (Tr. 1). Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court (Doc. 1). The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1997, claimed disability beginning May 20, 2016 (Tr. 19, 12). Plaintiff obtained a seventh-grade education (Tr. 35). Plaintiff has no past relevant work experience (Tr. 19). Plaintiff alleged disability due to panic attacks, paranoid reasons for limitation, and cannot work (Tr. 198).

         In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 20, 2016, the alleged onset date (Tr. 12). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: morbid obesity, lumbar thoracolumbar levoscoliosis, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cannabis use disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulse control disorder, and headaches (Tr. 12). Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 13). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work; can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can perform simple, routine, and repetitive work with occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public (Tr. 15). In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence (Tr. 19).

         Given Plaintiff's background and RFC, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a cleaner (housekeeping), advertising material distributor, and blade balancer (Tr. 20). Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 21).


         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning he or she must be unable 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 twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities, which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of his or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

         The ALJ, in part, decides Plaintiff's claim pursuant to Regulations designed to incorporate vocational factors into the consideration of disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1501, et seq. These Regulations apply in cases where an individual's medical condition is severe enough to prevent him from returning to his former employment but may not be severe enough to prevent him from engaging in other substantial gainful activity. In such cases, the Regulations direct that an individual's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience be considered in determining whether the claimant is disabled. These factors are codified in tables of rules that are appended to the Regulations and are commonly referred to as “the grids.” 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 2. If an individual's situation coincides with the criteria listed in a rule, that rule directs a conclusion as to whether the individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 416.969. If an individual's situation varies from the criteria listed in a rule, the rule is not conclusive as to an individual's disability but is advisory only. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569a, 416.969a.

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (internal quotation marks omitted)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). While the court reviews the Commissioner's decision with deference to the factual findings, no such deference is given to the legal conclusions. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's failure to apply the correct law, or to give the reviewing court sufficient reasoning for determining that he or she has conducted the proper legal analysis, mandates reversal. Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066. The scope of review is thus limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) improperly evaluating the opinions of the state agency physicians, Dr. Maurice Rudmann and Dr. Michelle Butler; (2) improperly evaluating the Licensed Mental Health Counselor's (“LMHC”) opinion, Dr. Sandra Treston; and (3) finding that there are a significant number of jobs available in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. For the reasons that ...

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