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Costello v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 2, 2019




         Before the Court is the Complaint, filed on May 1, 2018. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her 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 her 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 December 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Tr. at 93). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of March 16, 2005. (Id. at 927). Her application was denied initially on February 11, 2011 and again on reconsideration on July 14, 2011. (Id. at 93-94). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John Murdock on April 22, 2013. (Id. at 54). ALJ Murdock issued an unfavorable decision on June 27, 2013, finding Plaintiff not to be under a disability. (Id. at 23-24). Plaintiff requested a review of the decision, which the Appeals Council denied. (Id. at 1).

         Plaintiff then appealed to the United States District Court, which remanded the claim on March 17, 2015. (Id. at 1049-50). The Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's final decision and remanded the claim to an ALJ for further proceedings. (Id. at 1043-45). A second hearing was held before ALJ Maria C. Northington in Fort Myers, Florida, on November 7, 2016. (Id. at 947). ALJ Northington issued an unfavorable decision on February 23, 2017. (Id. at 940). Plaintiff requested a review of that decision, and on March 16, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 918-20). 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).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2010, the application date. (Tr. at 929). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder NOS, depressive disorder NOS, and borderline intellectual functioning (BIF).” (Id. at 930 (citing 20 C.F.R. 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. (citing 16 C.F.R. § 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 a wide range of work at all exertional levels that implicitly include the performance of sedentary to heavy work, but with the following non-exertional limitations. She has no postural limitations with the exception that [she] should avoid climbing ropes and scaffolds, but her ability to climb ladders is not affected. She retains the capacity to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks as consistent with unskilled work. In the course of work, she is to have no in-person contact with the public, except for incidental contact and telephonic contact. She is capable of only occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. In this instance, occasional is defined as interaction and coordination but not necessarily proximity to the same.

(Id. at 932).

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work and that considering her “age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can perform.” (Id. at 938 (citing 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.969(a)). Thus, the ALJ ...

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