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Woodward v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

RACHEL WOODWARD, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE CHRISTOPHER P. TUTTE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

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

         I.

         The Plaintiff was born in 1965, obtained an associate's degree, and has past relevant work experience as a preschool teacher. (R. 26, 40). In June 2015, the Plaintiff applied for DIB, SSI, and WIB, alleging disability as of July 1, 2013, due to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, bulging discs, and chronic colitis. (R. 212-20, 232). The Social Security Administration denied her applications both initially and on reconsideration.

         At the Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on July 24, 2017. (R. 33-68). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on her own behalf. A vocational expert (VE) also testified.

         In a decision dated November 6, 2017, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) was insured for DIB through June 30, 2016; had a prescribed period for WIB through April 30, 2022; and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 1, 2013; (2) had the severe impairments of obesity, hearing loss, chronic gastritis, hiatal hernia, bipolar disorder, substance dependence, ankylosing spondylitis, cervical spine disc protrusion, and lumbar spine 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 with some postural, environmental, and mental limitations; and (5) based in part on the VE's testimony, could not perform her past relevant work but was capable of performing other jobs in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 17-27). In light of these findings, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 27).

         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.

         II.

         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).

         III.

         The Plaintiff contends on appeal that the ALJ erred by failing to adequately address her “new and/or worsening symptoms” stemming from cellulitis and swelling in her lower extremities. (Doc. 22 at 5-7). The Commissioner counters that the ALJ thoroughly considered the entire record, including the more recent documentation upon which the Plaintiff relies, and properly assessed the relevant medical opinions in reaching his conclusion. Id. at 7-12.

         Upon a thorough review of the record and the parties' submissions, the Court agrees with the Commissioner and ...


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