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Hartling v. Saul

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

September 5, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Richard Hartling seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After reviewing the record, including a transcript of the proceedings before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the administrative record, pleadings, and joint memorandum submitted by the parties, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Mr. Hartling applied for DIB on March 5, 2015, alleging disability beginning on October 1, 2010. (Tr. 82, 94, 183-84). Mr. Hartling amended his disability onset date to September 20, 2011.[2] (Tr. 194). Disability examiners denied Mr. Hartling's application initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held before an ALJ. (Tr. 48-81). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 14-37).

         The Appeals Council denied Mr. Hartling's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1- 6). Mr. Hartling now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 1).


         A. Background

         Mr. Hartling was fifty-four years old on his date last insured. (Tr. 183). Mr. Hartling has two years of college education and past relevant work as a prison guard in a maximum-security prison. (Tr. 54, 199, 201, 219). Mr. Hartling claims disability because of spinal stenosis, spinal fusion with laminectomy, lumbar disc herniations, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, high blood pressure, gastritis, GERD, diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain. (Tr. 200, 246).

         B. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ must follow five steps when evaluating a claim for disability.[3] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). First, if a claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, [4] he is not disabled. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities, he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. § 404.1520(c); see McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1031 (11th Cir. 1986) (stating step two acts as a filter and “allows only claims based on the most trivial impairments to be rejected”). Third, if a claimant's impairments fail to meet or equal an impairment in the Listings, he is not disabled. § 404.1520(d); 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from performing past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At this fourth step, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC).[5] Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his RFC, age, education, and past work) do not prevent him from performing other work in the national economy, he is not disabled. § 404.1520(g).

         The ALJ here determined Mr. Hartling had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of September 20, 2011, through his date last insured of December 31, 2015. (Tr. 19). The ALJ found Mr. Hartling had these severe impairments:

history of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine status post remote C5-6 discectomy and fusion and remote laminectomy and fusion at ¶ 4-5 and C6-7, with residual stenosis and radiculopathy as well as indication of failed neck syndrome; degenerative disc disease of lumbar spine with L4-5 extrusion causing moderate impingement of ventral sac and mild disc bulge at ¶ 3-4 with stenosis and possible radiculopathy; unspecified depressive and anxiety disorders; and PTSD.

(Id.). However, the ALJ found Mr. Hartling's impairments or combination of impairments failed to meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment in the Listings. (Tr. 19-21).

         The ALJ then found Mr. Harling could perform light work with these limitations:

a sit/stand option every 30 to 60 minutes; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and never crawl; occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch; occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally, and push/pull with the upper extremities bilaterally; frequently reach, handle and finger bilaterally; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, excessive noise and excessive vibrations; avoid all exposure to hazardous machinery or unprotected heights; limited to simple routine repetitive tasks in a low-stress job (defined as only occasional decision making, only occasional changes in work setting, and no in-person interaction with the public and only occasional in-person interaction with co-workers).

(Tr. 21). Based on these findings and the testimony at the hearing, the ALJ determined Mr. Hartling could not perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 29). However, the ALJ found Mr. Hartling could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 30). Thus, the ALJ found Mr. Hartling not disabled. (Tr. 31).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports his findings. McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance. Dale v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). In other words, there must be sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to accept as enough to support the conclusion. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted).

         A reviewing court must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence “even if the proof preponderates against it.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The court must not make new factual determinations, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's decision. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240 (citation omitted). Instead, the court must view the whole record, considering evidence favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560; see also Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) ...

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