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Quario v. Saul

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

August 28, 2019

KIMBERLY QUARIO, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          ANTHONY E. PORCELLI, UNITED S/ATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was not based on substantial evidence and failed to employ proper legal standards, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded.

         I.

         A. Procedural Background

         In September 2003, an ALJ issued a fully favorable decision to Plaintiff, finding Plaintiff disabled and entitled to Supplement Security Income (“SSI”) benefits since October 1, 2001 (Tr. 78-90). Subsequently, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) conducted a continuing disability review of Plaintiff, finding that Plaintiff achieved medical improvement such that Plaintiff's disability ceased on March 1, 2014 (Tr. 137-45). Upon review, a hearing officer affirmed the decision regarding the cessation of Plaintiff's disability (Tr. 137-45). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 152). Per Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 38-75). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff's disability ended on March 1, 2014 and that Plaintiff did not become disabled again since that date (Tr. 14-37). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court (Doc. 1). The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ identified Plaintiff's most recent favorable medical decision finding that Plaintiff was disabled as the decision from September 2003, known as the “comparison point decision” or the CPD (Tr. 17, 19, 78-90). At the time of the CPD, Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: thoraco-lumbar strain/sprain secondary to a motor vehicle accident; a history of a seizure disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; and a learning disability (Tr. 19). The prior ALJ determined that those impairments resulted in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to lift up to 50 pounds and to preclude performance of competitive, remunerative work requiring the ability to understand, carry out, and remember instructions, use judgment in making work-related decisions, respond appropriately to supervisors, coworkers, and work situations, and deal with changes in a routine work setting (Tr. 19). Through the date of the most recent ALJ decision, Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) (Tr. 19).

         According to the ALJ, the medical evidence established that, since March 1, 2014, Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: a history of thoraco-lumbar strain/sprain secondary to a motor vehicle accident; lumbar facet arthropathy; a history of a seizure disorder; intellectual disability; a learning disorder; an affective disorder; and obesity (Tr. 19). The ALJ found that, since March 1, 2014, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments which met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 20). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff's medical improvement occurred on March 1, 2014 (Tr. 22). Namely, since March 1, 2014, the impairments present at the time of the CPD decreased in medical severity to the point where Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, with the following additional limitations: frequently climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never work around unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; and understand, remember, and carry out detailed but not complex instructions (Tr. 23). The ALJ stated that Plaintiff's medical improvement related to the ability to work because it resulted in an increase in Plaintiff's RFC (Tr. 24).

         Going further, the ALJ found that, since March 1, 2014, Plaintiff continued to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, and, based on those impairments present since March 1, 2014, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, except that Plaintiff could only frequently climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never work around unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; and could understand, remember, and carry out detailed but not complex instructions (Tr. 24-25). Considering Plaintiff's noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work since March 1, 2014 (Tr. 29). Given Plaintiff's background and RFC, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an electronics worker, a small products assembler, and an electronic products assembler (Tr. 29-30, 65-67). Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's disability ended on March 1, 2014, and Plaintiff did not become disabled again since that date (Tr. 30).

         II.

         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning he or she must be unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment that 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).

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”), in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.[2] The regulations also establish a sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant's disability continues or ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f). Under this process, the SSA must determine, in sequence, the following:

(1) Whether the claimant is engaging in SGA.[3] If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, the SSA will find disability to have ended;
(2) If the claimant is not engaging in SGA, whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the claimant does have such ...

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