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Harper v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

LINDA S. HARPER, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         The Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         The Plaintiff was born in 1962 and has past relevant work experience as an accounting clerk. (R. 99, 101). In April 2014, the Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning on January 22, 2010, due to anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disc disease, hip, pelvis, back, and knee problems, and cervical and lumbar spine impairments. (R. 147, 269-71, 298). The Social Security Administration denied her application both initially and on reconsideration. (R. 146, 157).

         At the Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on May 17, 2016. (R. 93-120). 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 August 22, 2016, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) was insured for DIB through December 31, 2011, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 22, 2010; (2) had the severe impairments of polyneuropathy, degenerative joint disease of the knees, and degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines; (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 a wide range of sedentary work subject to some additional functional and environmental limitations; and (5) based upon the VE's testimony, could perform her past relevant work as an accounting clerk.[2] (R. 79-86).

         Of particular relevance here, with respect to the Plaintiff's mental health, at step three of her analysis the ALJ considered the four areas of mental functioning-known as the “Paragraph B” criteria-used in the disability process for evaluating mental impairments.[3] The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's alleged mental impairments did not satisfy the “Paragraph B” criteria for Listing 12.04 (affective disorder) and Listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorder). (R. 80). In making this determination, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living and social functioning, but moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 80-81). Based on this determination as well as the rest of her findings, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 86).

         The Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council granted. (R. 252, 254-57). In affirming the ALJ's disability determination, the Appeals Council largely agreed with the ALJ's conclusions at steps one through four. (R. 8). The Appeals Council, however, disagreed with the ALJ's assessment as to the “Paragraph B” criteria. Id. Specifically, the Appeals Council found the ALJ's conclusion that the Plaintiff had no severe mental impairment incompatible with her determination that the Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. Id. The Appeals Council instead found that the Plaintiff had no more than mild difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace and confirmed the ALJ's finding of no severe mental impairments. Id.[4] Accordingly, the Appeals Council concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled through her date last insured. (R. 10).

         The Appeal Council did not subsequently elect to revise its decision and it therefore 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).[5] 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)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[6] 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)).

         If a claimant is dissatisfied with an ALJ's decision, she may request that the Appeals Council review the action. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.967, 416.1467. If the Appeals Council grants review, it may then affirm, modify, or reverse the ALJ's decision and remand the matter back to the ALJ. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970, 404.979, 404.981. In doing so, the Appeals Council must engage in a de novo evaluation of the record evidence, including any new and material evidence submitted to it that relates to the date on or before the ALJ's decision. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.976, 404.979. The Appeals Council's decision is binding unless it subsequently elects to revise it, and it is subject to judicial review in federal court as the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 404.984; Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1261 (11th Cir. 2007).

         Judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether he applied the correct legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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)). While the ...

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