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Williams v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

June 18, 2019




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of an administrative decision denying her applications for a Period of Disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on January 15, 2015. (Tr. 15, 85-86.) A video hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 13, 2017, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 30-68.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from January 15, 2015, the alleged disability onset date, through July 12, 2017, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 19-39.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from January 15, 2015 through July 12, 2017. Plaintiff has exhausted her available administrative remedies and the case is properly before the Court. The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Standard

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating that the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff raises two issues on appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ erred when “he acknowledged Plaintiff's use of a cane, but failed to create a ‘logical bridge' to the RFC finding, which omits any cane-related limitation.” (Doc. 16 at 1.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to acknowledge or discuss her “exemplary work history” in making his credibility finding. (Tr. 1, 11-13.) Defendant responds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and his decision is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 19 at 10.) Defendant also counters that Plaintiff's second argument is without merit because the ALJ specifically noted that Plaintiff had good work history and “substantial evidence supports the ALJ's evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective allegations.” (Id. at 11.) The Court agrees with the Plaintiff on the first issue to the extent the ALJ erred in failing to affirmatively reject Plaintiff's need for an assistive device, and therefore, does not address the remaining issues.

         A. The ALJ's Findings

         At the first step of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's 2015 earnings reflected that she had engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of January 15, 2015. (Tr. 17.) The ALJ “reserve[d] ruling on the issue of substantial gainful activity” in light of his denial “at another step of the sequential evaluation process for the entire period.”[3] (Id.) Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and essential hypertension. (Tr. 18.) However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combinations of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments . . . .” (Tr. 21.)

         The ALJ then formulated Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), finding that Plaintiff can perform a reduced range of light work, with the following limitations: “she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She is limited to frequent reaching with [the] right upper extremity. She can never be exposed to workplace hazards[, ] such as moving mechanical parts and high, exposed places.” (Id.)

         In determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that “claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” (Tr. 22.) The ALJ recognized that Plaintiff suffered from degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis and considered Plaintiff's testimony that she is in pain daily, but noted that “she has [not] [sic] required surgery for these conditions.” (Id.) The ALJ also noted that although Plaintiff was unable to safely ambulate in February 2016, and required hospitalization, the medical records show Plaintiff's “function gradually improved with treatment [and] [u]pon discharge, she was able to safely ambulate.” (Tr. 22; 490-492.) The ALJ further noted that:

In May 2016, the claimant walked with a cane, but her gait was steady (Exhibit 7F, page 30). In August 2016, the claimant's pain was stable[, ] and she had negative straight leg raising. Medication regimen offered improvement in function and [in] activities of daily living (Exhibit 5F). Moreover, [the] latest records in 2017 showed the claimant reported no joint pain, stiffness or swelling and no back pain. Musculoskeletal examination showed normal gait and station, spine without deformity, good muscle tone and strength, no swelling, tenderness or limitation of motion of any joint (Exhibit 12F).

(Tr. 22.) The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's diabetes mellitus and essential hypertension, but noted that neither condition had caused end organ damage or required hospitalization. (Id.)

         The ALJ also noted Plaintiff's alleged “shoulder issues, ” including the inability to raise her arm, and stated “this has been considered in assessing her” RFC. (Id.) Next, the ALJ noted Plaintiff's hip issues, but stated that there was no evidence that Plaintiff needed surgery. (Id.) The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's “testimony that she does nothing around the house and mostly lies down most of the day, ” but found that this is “not ...

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