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Vacca v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

July 17, 2019




         Before the Court is the Complaint, filed on June 28, 2018. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and his claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Commissioner filed the Transcript of the proceedings (hereinafter referred to as “Tr.” followed by the appropriate page number), and the parties filed a joint memorandum detailing their respective positions. For the reasons set forth herein, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Social Security Act Eligibility, the ALJ Decision, and Standard of Review

         A. Eligibility

         The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. The impairment must be severe, making the Plaintiff unable to do his previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505-.1511, 416.905-.911.

         B. Procedural History

         On March 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Tr. at 367, 371). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of December 19, 2011. (Id.). His application was denied initially on June 1, 2012 and again on reconsideration on July 17, 2012. (Id. at 123, 145). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) T. Whitaker on December 29, 2014 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Id. at 70). ALJ Whitaker issued an unfavorable decision on February 6, 2015, finding Plaintiff not to be under a disability from December 19, 2011 through the date of the decision. (Id. at 163). Plaintiff requested a review of the decision, and the Appeals Council granted the request, remanding the case for further consideration of Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity and directing the ALJ to evaluate the treating source opinion of Dr. Robert E. Tomas and directing the ALJ, if warranted, to obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert. (Id. at 170-71).

         A second hearing was held before ALJ Elizabeth Palacios on October 28, 2016. (Id. at 35). ALJ Palacios rendered an unfavorable decision on August 2, 2017. (Id. at 21). Plaintiff requested a review of that decision, and on May 17, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1). Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the United States District Court on June 28, 2018. (Doc. 1). This case is ripe for review. The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (Doc. 15).

         C. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a Plaintiff has proven that he is disabled. Packer v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 542 Fed.Appx. 890, 891 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)).[1] An ALJ must determine whether the Plaintiff: (1) is performing substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform her past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work found in the national economy. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-40 (11th Cir. 2004). The Plaintiff has the burden of proof through step four, and then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Hines-Sharp v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 511 Fed.Appx. 913, 915 n.2 (11th Cir. 2013).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017. (Tr. at 12). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 19, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “osteoarthritis; obesity; hyperlipidemia; gouty arthritis; diabetes mellitus; benign hypertension; and alcohol use.” (Id. at 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c), 416.920(c))). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (Id. at 16 (citing 16 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926)). At step four, the ALJ determined the following as to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium exertion, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), except as follows: every one hour the individual requires a 5 minute break during which the individual would remain on task, in addition to the usual work breaks and lunch time.

(Id. at 17).

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was “capable of performing past relevant work as a Counter Clerk, Automotive Parts” and that “[t]his work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).” (Id. at 20). Thus, the ALJ concluded that ...

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