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Bruns v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

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



         The Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         The Plaintiff was born in 1965, has a high school education, and has past relevant work experience as a cashier, store stocker, and customer service clerk. (R. 24-25). In June 2014, the Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of June 5, 2014, due to anxiety, asthma, a herniated esophagus, degenerative disc disease, disc bulges, carotid artery stenosis, carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). (R. 116, 203-04). The Social Security Administration denied her applications both initially and on reconsideration. (R. 100-01, 130-31).

         At the Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on October 5, 2016. (R. 32-56). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on her own behalf. (R. 36-51). A vocational expert (VE) also testified. (R. 51-55).

         In a decision dated January 5, 2017, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) met the insured status through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 5, 2014; (2) had the severe impairments of COPD, osteoarthritis, seizures, and degenerative disc disease; (3) did not, however, have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments; (4) had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, subject to certain exertional and environmental limitations; and (5) based in part on the VE's testimony, could not perform her past relevant work but was capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy-namely, the unskilled jobs of mailroom clerk, merchandise maker, and survey worker. (R. 17-26). In light of these findings, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 26).

         The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-6). Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The Social Security Act (the Act) defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a); 416.905(a).[2] A physical or mental impairment under the Act “results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Social Security Regulations (Regulations) prescribe “a five-step, sequential evaluation process.” Carter v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 726 Fed.Appx. 737, 739 (11th Cir. 2018) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[3] Under this process, 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 RFC to perform past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work in the national economy given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Carter, 726 Fed.Appx. at 739 (citing Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). While the claimant has the burden of proof through step four, the burden temporarily shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Sampson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 Fed.Appx. 727, 734 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)). If the Commissioner carries that burden, the claimant must then prove that she cannot perform the work identified by the Commissioner. Id. In the end, “the overall burden of demonstrating the existence of a disability . . . rests with the claimant.” Washington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1280 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         A claimant who does not prevail at the administrative level may seek judicial review in federal court provided that the Commissioner has issued a final decision on the matter after a hearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether he applied the correct legal standards. Id.; Hargress v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 883 F.3d 1302, 1305 n.2 (11th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hargress, 883 F.3d at 1305 n.2 (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). In evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the Court “may not decide the facts anew, make credibility determinations, or re-weigh the evidence.” Carter, 726 Fed.Appx. at 739 (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)). While the court accords deference to the Commissioner's factual findings, “no such deference is given to [his] legal conclusions.” Keel-Desensi v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 1417326, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 29, 2019) (citations omitted).


         The Plaintiff argues on appeal that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the severity of her mental impairments. (Doc. 27 at 6). In support of this contention, the Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to state the weight he accorded the opinions of a consultative psychologist, Dr. Angel Martinez, and neglected to acknowledge the medical records from the Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Bharminder Bedi. Id. at 6-11. As a result, the Plaintiff requests that the Court remand the matter to the Commissioner for a “fuller and more adequate evaluation and development” of the evidence relating to her mental health condition. Id. at 19.

         The Commissioner counters that the Plaintiff failed to meet her burden of showing a severe mental impairment that interfered with her ability to perform basic work activities. Id. at 13. The Commissioner further argues that any error by the ALJ in failing to explicitly assign the weight he gave to Dr. Martinez's opinions or to discuss Dr. Bedi's records is harmless because such opinions and records are consistent with the ALJ's conclusions regarding the Plaintiff's mental limitations. Id. at 16-19.

         Upon a thorough review of the record and the parties' submissions, the Court finds no reversible error. For the purposes of its analysis, the Court addresses the Plaintiff's argument in three parts: (a) the ALJ's assessment of the Plaintiff's mental impairments as non-severe; (b) the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Martinez's medical opinions; and (c) the ALJ's evaluation (or lack thereof) of Dr. Bedi's treatment records.

         A. Severity of the ...

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