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Cotten v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 8, 2019




         This cause is before the Court on Plaintiff Jennifer Lee Cotten's Complaint (Doc. 1) filed on June 25, 2018. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and a period of disability. The Commissioner filed the Transcript of the proceedings (hereinafter referred to as “Tr.” followed by the appropriate page number), and the parties filed legal memoranda in support of their positions. For the reasons set out 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's 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 claimant 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)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 - 404.1511, 416.905 - 416.911. Plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion through step four, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         B. Procedural History

         On March 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of August 14, 2015. (Tr. at 83, 172-78). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on May 25, 2016 and again following reconsideration on July 12, 2016. (Id. at 83-84). A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William G. Reamon on May 18, 2017. (Id. at 28-72). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 30, 2017. (Id. at 15-23). The ALJ found Plaintiff not to be under a disability from August 14, 2015, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 22).

         On May 19, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1-3). Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court on June 25, 2018. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed an Answer on September 13, 2018. (Doc. 13). The parties filed a Joint Memorandum on February 4, 2019. (Doc. 18). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings. (Doc. 14). This case is ripe for review.

         C. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         An ALJ must follow a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if a claimant has proven that she 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 claimant: (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) has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work of the sort found in the national economy. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-40 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant 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 met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2019. (Tr. at 17). At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 14, 2015, the alleged onset date. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “cervical degenerative disc disease, spondylosis, and stenosis (status post anterior cervical diskectomy with fusion) and lumbar spine degenerative joint disease, stenosis, and L5-S1 disc protrusion (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).” (Id. at 18). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did 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. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526)).

         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 sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she can frequently climb ramps/stairs; no climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds; can frequently balance and crouch; can occasionally stoop, kneel, and crawl; can tolerate no overhead reaching with the left upper extremity; must avoid concentrated exposure to ...

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