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Thompson v. Saul

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

August 14, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]


         I. Status

         Renee Deloris Thompson (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('s)”) final decision denying her claims for disability income benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is the result of “chronic ankle pain due to tibia, fibula, ankle break”; neck spasms; “straightening [of the] normal cervical lordosis”; type 2 diabetes; high blood pressure; “c4-c5d central herniation abutting cervical spinal cord”; “significant degenerative disc disease in neck”; diverticulitis; “loss of intervertebral disc space h[ei]ght and signal”; “c4-c5 par[a]central disc protrusion”; a hiatal hernia; “esophageal manometry”; “congestive gastric mucosa”; hemorrhoids; anemia; menorrhagia; dyspareunia; high cholesterol; and depression. See Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 12; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed July 11, 2018, at 77-78, 91-92, 105-06, 122-23, 228 (emphasis omitted). Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on October 2, 2014[3] and for SSI on October 8, 2014, [4] alleging a disability onset date of August 27, 2014. Tr. at 203 (DIB); Tr. at 205 (SSI). The applications were denied initially, Tr. at 75, 77-88, 90, 140-42 (DIB); Tr. at 76, 89, 91-102, 137-39 (SSI), and upon reconsideration, Tr. at 103, 104, 105-18, 148-52 (DIB); Tr. at 120, 121, 122-35, 153-57 (SSI).

         On April 12, 2017, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which he heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 49-73. Plaintiff was forty-six years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. at 56. The ALJ issued a Decision on June 28, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 10-21.

         On July 28, 2017, Plaintiff requested review of the Decision by the Appeals Council. Tr. at 202. The Appeals Council received additional evidence in the form of a brief authored by Plaintiff's counsel. Tr. at 4-5; see Tr. at 309-10 (brief). On March 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-3, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On May 3, 2018, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes the following argument: “The ALJ's analysis of treating [physician Dr. Rene Pulido's opinions] regarding Plaintiff's physical limitations” was erroneous and contrary to law. Plaintiff's Memorandum - Social Security (Doc. No. 16; “Pl.'s Mem.”), filed September 10, 2018, at 1, 14 (emphasis omitted). Although most of Plaintiff's argument revolves around the ALJ's handling of Dr. Pulido's opinions, Plaintiff also contends that “[t]he ALJ did not give legally sufficient good reasons to reject . . . Plaintiff's self-description of her limitations . . . .” see Pl.'s Mem. at 24; see id. at 16-24. On December 6, 2018, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 19; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's arguments. After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [5] an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (“Regulations”), determining as appropriate whether the claimant (1) is currently employed or engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in the Regulations; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four, and at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 12-20. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 27, 2014, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 12 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: history of right lower extremity fracture with residual limitations, adjustment disorder, degenerative disk disease, depression, and osteoarthritis.” Tr. at 12 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff “does 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.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 13 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)] except limited to unskilled work not requiring complex instructions or procedures; no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; no work at unprotected heights or with hazardous machinery; occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, or kneeling; frequent use of foot controls with right lower extremity; occasional climbing of ramps or stairs; frequent overhead reaching bilaterally; frequent handling bilaterally; frequent interaction with co-workers and supervisors; and occasional contact with the general public.

Tr. at 15 (emphasis omitted).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is “unable to perform any past relevant work.” Tr. at 19 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“44 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“a limited education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform, ” Tr. at 19 (emphasis and citation omitted), such as “laundry folder, ” “mail sorter, ” and “inspector/hand packager, ” Tr. at 20. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from August 27, 2014, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 30 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

          This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Although no deference is given to the ALJ's conclusions of law, findings of fact “are conclusive if . . . supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). “Substantial evidence is something ‘more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987)). The substantial evidence standard is met when there is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Falge, 150 F.3d at 1322 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence; rather, the entire record is reviewed to determine whether “the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         As noted above, Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's analysis of Dr. Pulido's opinions and the ALJ's evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. The undersigned addresses each issue in turn.

         A. Dr. Pulido's Opinions

         1. Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff contends that “[t]he ALJ gave ‘little weight' to Dr. Pulido's opinion, even though it is uncontradicted by any examining source of record, stating that it was not consistent with the evidence as a whole, ‘particularly the objective findings.'” Pl.'s Mem. at 19 (emphasis and citation omitted). Plaintiff argues that “the ALJ did not offer any details as to which ‘objective findings' did not support the opinion.” Id. at 19 (citation omitted). According to Plaintiff, the ALJ's discussion of the evidence was “extremely selective.” Id. at 22.

         Responding, Defendant identifies the evidence discussed by the ALJ, with citations to the record. See Def.'s Mem. at 6-8. In addition, Defendant points to the opinion of Dr. Robert Steele (the state agency medical consultant who reviewed the evidence at the reconsideration level), ...

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