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Carter v. Saul

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

August 19, 2019

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



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


         The Plaintiff was born in 1965, has a high school education, and has past relevant work experience as a pipe fitter, glass installer, maintenance repairer, and janitor. (R. 25). In December 2013, the Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of December 1, 2012, due to high blood pressure and a broken neck from a car accident. (R. 16, 202-17, 239). The Social Security Administration denied his applications both initially and on reconsideration.

         At the Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on February 18, 2016. (R. 50-61). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id.

         Following the hearing, the ALJ had the Plaintiff submit to physical and psychological consultative examinations conducted by Dr. Anand Rao (R. 796-804) and Dr. Sally Strader (R. 782-88), respectively. In addition, the ALJ sent two sets of interrogatories to a vocational expert (VE). The VE responded to these interrogatories on September 6 and December 21, 2016. (R. 306-09, 321-24). Plaintiff's counsel also posed several written questions to the VE, to which the VE responded on November 28, 2016. (R. 328-29).

         In a decision dated April 5, 2017, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) was insured for DIB through December 31, 2017, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date; (2) had the severe impairments of obesity, hypertension, muscle spasm, cervicalgia/cervical sprain/strain, and lumbago/lumbar sprain/strain; (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 limited range of light work, [2] insofar as he was able to “lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit for 4 hours in an 8-hour day, ” among other limitations; and (5) based upon the VE's testimony, could not perform his past relevant work but was capable of performing other jobs in significant numbers in the national economy-namely, the representative occupations of marker, ticket taker, and mail clerk. (R. 16-27). 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. 1-7). 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).[3] 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 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).[4]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 his 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 he 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 raises four issues on appeal: (1) the ALJ's finding that he could perform the jobs of marker, ticket taker, and mail clerk is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ failed to properly assess the opinion of the physical consultative examiner, Dr. Rao; (3) the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the VE was incomplete because it did not comprise all of the limitations that Dr. Rao opined the Plaintiff had; and (4) the ALJ failed to weigh the opinion of another consultative examiner, Dr. Ladapo Shyngle. (Doc. ...

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