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Zeh v. Saul

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

September 6, 2019

SUSAN ZEH, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of a Title II claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). As the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and employed proper legal standards, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB (Tr. 40, 103, 314). T h e Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim, and Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 40). Per Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing and two supplemental hearings at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 62-129). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits (Tr. 37-61). 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).

         II. Factual Background and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born on November 14, 1964, claimed disability beginning July 14, 2015, as amended (Tr. 40, 103, 314). Plaintiff obtained at least a high school equivalent education and has taken some online community college classes (Tr. 46, 115-16, 314, 374). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work as a restaurant server (Tr. 46, 52, 69, 375, 411). Plaintiff alleged disability due to fibromyalgia, hypertension, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sciatica, deteriorating discs in her neck and back, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 40, 103, 373).

         In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2019, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 14, 2015, the amended alleged onset date (Tr. 42, 370). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder with panic, degenerative cervical and lumbar spine and disc disease, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, right cubital tunnel syndrome, left shoulder impingement syndrome, and right shoulder subchondral cyst (Tr. 42). Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 43). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations: the ability to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and climb ramps or stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the ability to occasionally reach overhead, frequently reach in other directions, and frequently handle, finger and feel with the bilateral upper extremities; no concentrated exposure to weather, to extreme heat or cold, or to wetness or humidity and no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving machinery; occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the public; can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low stress environment (meaning one with no supervisory responsibilities; with no independent decision-making except with respect to simple, routine work-related decisions; and no more than occasional changes in work processes, routines or settings) (Tr. 45). In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence (Tr. 46, 51).

         Considering Plaintiff's noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work (Tr. 52). 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 a mail clerk, housekeeper-cleaner, and photocopy machine operator and that more than one million of these jobs existed in the national economy (Tr. 53). Accordingly, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 54).

         III. Legal Standard

         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, 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. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If they claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of his or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disable must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (internal quotation marks omitted)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). While the court reviews the Commissioner's decision with deference to the factual findings, no such deference is given to the legal conclusions. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court may not re-weigh evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's failure to apply the correct law, or to give the reviewing court sufficient reasoning for determining that he or she has conducted the proper legal analysis, mandates reversal. Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066. The scope of review is thus limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported ...

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