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Henry v. Saul

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

August 26, 2019

JEAN HENRY, Plaintiff,
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 affirmed.


         The Plaintiff was born in 1968, completed the eleventh grade, and has past relevant work as a merchant, meat cutter, utility worker, bedspring assembler, and cutoff machine operator. (R. 477, 491). In September 2011, the Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of July 23, 2009, due to injuries to his ribs, neck, lower back, and right shoulder. (R. 89-104). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied his applications both initially and on reconsideration. (R. 89-128).

         At the Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on August 14, 2013. (R. 34-88). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on his own behalf. (R. 34-74, 82-83, 86-88). A vocational expert (VE) also testified. (R. 75-86).

         On November 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 18-33). The Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review that decision (R. 16-17), and, when the Council agreed with the Commissioner's disability determination (R. 1-6), the Plaintiff sought relief in federal court. On the Commissioner's subsequent motion, the court entered judgment in favor of the Plaintiff and remanded the case to the SSA pursuant to section 405(g) of the Social Security Act (the Act). (R. 534-35).

         On remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to resolve several issues with the Commissioner's earlier decision. (R. 555-56). Of relevance here, one of those issues pertained to the ALJ's evaluation of the reports of three of the Plaintiff's physicians: Dr. Lorenzo Bongolan, an orthopedic surgeon; Dr. Samuel Joseph, a neurologist; and Dr. Robert Burchette, a consultative physician. The Appeals Council noted that, although the ALJ discussed these reports, he neglected to state the weight he assigned to the physicians' opinions. (R. 555). The Appeals Council accordingly instructed the ALJ to give further consideration to these reports in accordance with the governing regulations and to explain the weight afforded to each. (R. 556).

         In response to the Appeals Council's remand order, the ALJ conducted a second hearing in August 2017. (R. 486-517). The Plaintiff, again represented by counsel, testified at that hearing, as did a VE. Id.

         In a decision dated May 2, 2018, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 23, 2009; (2) had the severe impairments of scoliosis, cardiac insufficiency, 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 limitations; and (5) based in part on the VE's testimony, could not engage in his past relevant work but was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 469-78). In light of these findings, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. Id.

         The Plaintiff elected not to seek the Appeals Council's review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 17 at 2). As a result, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         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).[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)).[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 engage in past relevant work; and (5) can perform other jobs in the national economy given his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. (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.

         Although the claimant bears “the overall burden of demonstrating the existence of a disability, ” an ALJ has a firmly-established duty to develop a full and fair record of the facts relevant to the claimant's application for benefits. Washington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359-64 (11th Cir. 2018) (citations omitted). This duty stems from the fact that Social Security proceedings are by their nature “inquisitorial, rather than adversarial.” Id. at 1364 (citations omitted); Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007). An ALJ has not satisfied his duty to develop the record where the record contains ...

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