United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Panama City Division
GLORIA J. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Michael J. Frank United States Magistrate Judge
Gloria J. Williams brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) and seeks review of a final adverse decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The
Commissioner denied her applications for a period of
disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), and
Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Plaintiff timely pursued
and exhausted her administrative remedies. After careful
consideration of the entire record, the decision of the
Commissioner is affirmed.
17, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed: (1) a Title II
application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits; and (2) an application for supplemental
security income. (Tr. 10). In her applications, Plaintiff
alleged that her disability began March 14, 2014.
(Id.). Her claims were initially denied on August
27, 2015, and upon reconsideration on October 29, 2015.
Thereafter Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id.).
On May 12, 2017, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared
before the assigned ALJ at a video hearing. (Id.).
On August 16, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision in which she
found Plaintiff was not under a disability. (Tr. 10-22).
Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, and, on May 9,
2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review. (Tr. 1-6). Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as
the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in
this court. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). This
Findings of the ALJ
denying Plaintiff's claims, the ALJ made the following
findings relevant to the issues raised in this appeal:
(1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirement of the
Social Security Act through March 31, 2019.
(2) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since March 14, 2014, the alleged onset date.
(3) The claimant had the following severe impairments:
depression, anxiety, borderline intellectual functioning,
personality disorder not otherwise specified, degenerative
disc disease of the cervical spine, and obesity. The ALJ
found that Plaintiff's hypertension, dyslipidemia,
pre-diabetes, uterine hypoechaic masses, low potassium, and
gastroesophageal reflux disease were non-severe impairments.
The ALJ found that fibromyalgia and joint disease other than
the cervical spine were not medically determinable
(4) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1.
(5) Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to
perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. Part 404.1567(c)
and 416.967(c), except:
a. she can frequently balance, stoop, crawl, and climb ramps
b. she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or work
at unprotected heights;
c. she is limited to performing simple, routine tasks and
making simple work-related decisions; and
d. she can frequently interact with co-workers and can have
occasional contact with the public.
(6) Plaintiff was “capable of performing past relevant
work as a cleaner, housekeeping.”
(7) The claimant had not been under a disability, as defined
by the Social Security Act, from March 14, 2014, through the
date of the ALJ's decision.
Standard of Review
of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to
determining whether the decision is supported by substantial
evidence from the record and was a result of the application
of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936
F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may
reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when
convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or
that proper legal standards were not applied.”);
see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439
(11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999
(11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by
substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is
coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.”
Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir.
1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated
in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir.
1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the
Commissioner's decision will not be disturbed if, in
light of the record as a whole, the decision appears to be
supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir.
1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v.
Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995).
evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance;
it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct.
1420, 1427 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v.
NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217 (1938));
Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The reviewing court may not
decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute
its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v.
Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)
(citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates
against the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be
affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v.
Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). A court
“‘must scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported
by substantial evidence.'” Schink v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., __ F.3d __, 2019 WL 4023639, at *6 (11th
Cir. Aug. 27, 2019) (citing MacGregor v. Bowen, 786
F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)).
defines a disability as an “inability 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 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To qualify as a
disability the physical or mental impairment must be so
severe that the claimant is not only unable to do her
previous work, “but cannot, considering [her] age,
education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of
substantial gainful work which exists in the national
economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(g),  the Commissioner analyzes a
disability claim in five steps:
1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful
activity, she is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful
activity, her impairments must be severe before she can be
3. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful
activity and she has severe impairments that have lasted or
are expected to last for a continuous period of at least
twelve months, and if her impairments meet or medically equal
the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is presumed disabled
without further inquiry.
4. If the claimant's impairments do not prevent her from
doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled.
5. Even if the claimant's impairments prevent her from
performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in
significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates
her RFC and vocational factors, she is not disabled.
claimant bears the burden of establishing that she suffers
from a severe impairment that keeps her from performing her
past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. If the claimant
establishes such an impairment, the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five to show the existence of other jobs
in the national economy which, given the claimant's
impairments, the claimant can perform. MacGregor,
786 F.2d at 1052. If the Commissioner carries this burden,
the claimant must then prove she cannot perform the work
suggested by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831
F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).
Plaintiff's Medical History and Employment
from a July 2006 Magnetic Resonance Imaging
(“MRI”) scan showed “mild disc degeneration
at ¶ 5-6 with a small posterior disc protrusion
extending beyond smaller spurs that was very close to cord
with no displacement or complication.” (Tr. 17, 550).
It also showed a smaller posterior disc bulge or minor
protrusion at ¶ 6-7, causing mild deformity of the
thecal sac, but not contacting the cord. (Id.).
There were also subtle disc bulges at ¶ 4-5 and C7-T1.
(Id.). The scan also indicated that there was a
minimal bulge at ¶ 3-4. (Id.). Plaintiff has
not received medical treatment for this impairment.
(Id., Tr. 48).
February 2014, Plaintiff presented to the Bay County Health
Department for blood pressure medication refills. Plaintiff
reported a history that included a back and a left knee
injury, but she denied any numbness, tingling, depression, or
difficulty with sleeping. (Tr. 618). She also did not report
any neck pain. Plaintiff was not prescribed anything for
pain. (Tr. 618-23). In May 2014, Plaintiff denied any muscle
or joint problems, pain, swelling, tingling, or numbness.
(Tr. 614-15). These records reflect that she had no joint
abnormalities or swelling. She had full range of motion and
full strength. (Tr. 616). In July 2014, she reported swelling
in her fingers and feet; however, she denied muscle or joint
problems, muscle pain, numbness, or tingling. (Tr. 611). She
also had no gross motor dysfunction and a normal mental
status. (Tr. 612). These records also indicate that she had
no joint abnormalities or swelling and that she had full
range of motion and full strength. (Id.). In
November 2014, she similarly denied any musculoskeletal or
psychiatric problems. (Tr. 608). Plaintiff's additional
exam results remained normal. (Tr. 606-08).
January 2015, Plaintiff received care from St. Andrew
Community Medical Center. She reported occasional numbness
and tingling in her hands and feet, but she did not report
any neck pain. (Tr. 565-67). She denied muscle weakness,
instability, or swelling. (Tr. 566). She denied any anxiety
or depression. (Tr. 567). Upon exam, Plaintiff had a full
range of motion, full strength in her upper and lower
extremities, and intact hand grasp. (Tr. 567). In subsequent
appointments in 2015 and 2016, Plaintiff continued to have
normal exams. (Tr. 558-59, 561-63, 664-65). Plaintiff took
only Tylenol for chronic pain. (Tr. 558, 664, 671, 678, 681,
684, 686, 688). In June 2016, Plaintiff was prescribed
Vistaril for sleep. (Tr. 678). The ALJ noted that the records
reflect that at her June 2016 appointment, Plaintiff's
assessments included anxiety and depression for the first
time. (Tr. 679). She was prescribed Celexa for depression and
anxiety. (Tr. 678, 681, 684, 686, 688). In November
2016, Plaintiff reported that she was doing well and had no
new issues. She reported some depression but indicated that
it was being managed by the Celexa. (Tr. 671). She stated
that she should talk to someone about how to deal with life
stressors including the death of her mother. (Id.).
2015, Dr. Brian Boehman, Ph.D., conducted a psychological
evaluation of Plaintiff as part of her vocational
rehabilitation. During the mental status exam, Plaintiff
could perform simple arithmetic, simple subtraction,
multiplication, and division. (Tr. 589). She did not struggle
with immediate recall and was successful in delayed recall.
(Id.). She was able to recall 2 of 3 words after a
five-minute delay. She also correctly listed 6 digits forward
and four digits backwards. (Id.). Plaintiff's
mood was noted to be calm and friendly, but she exhibited
signs of elevated anxiety through the evaluation.
(Id.). Plaintiff's conversation was normal and
appropriate, and she did not exhibit any confusion in her
thought process. (Id.).
Boehman also administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence
Scale-Fourth Edition and the Woodcock John II Test of
Achievement. (Tr. 589-92). On the Wechsler test, Plaintiff
obtained a verbal comprehension score of 80 (low average); a
perceptual reasoning score of 73 (borderline); a working
memory score of 86 (low average); a processing speed score of
68 (extremely low); and a full-scale IQ score of 72
(borderline). (Tr. 590). On the Woodcock Test, Plaintiff
obtained a score in the average range in broad reading and
broad written language. (Tr. 592). She scored in the low
average range in broad mathematics. (Id.). When
compared to others at her age level, Plaintiff's overall
level of achievement was average. (Id.).
Boehman also administered the Woodcock Johnson III Test of
Cognitive Abilities to assess Plaintiff's executive
processing ability. (Tr. 590, 592-93). Plaintiff scored in
the low range in long-term retrieval and process speed; the
low average range in verbal ability, cognitive efficiency,
comprehension-knowledge, and auditory process; and the
average range in short-term memory. (Tr. 592). Dr. Boehman
administered the Wechsler Memory Scale-Fourth Edition. (Tr.
590, 593-94). Plaintiff scored in the extremely low range in
auditory and immediate memory; the borderline range in visual
memory and delayed memory; and the low average range in
visual working memory. (Tr. 593).
also took the Million Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-Third
Edition test. (Tr. 590, 594). Dr. Boehman noted that
Plaintiff's response style may indicate a tendency to
magnify illness, an inclination to complain, or feelings of
extreme vulnerability associated with a current episode of
turmoil. (Tr. 594). He indicated that her scaled scores may
be somewhat exaggerated. (Id.). Plaintiff's
profile indicated that she was markedly dependent, anxious,
and depressed. (Tr. 594). Plaintiff also took the Beck
Anxiety Inventory and the Beck Depression Inventory and
expressed a severe level of anxiety and a moderate level of
depression. (Tr. 590, 595).
Boehman diagnosed Plaintiff with major depressive disorder,
recurrent, severe, without psychotic features; generalized
anxiety disorder; and unspecified personality disorder. (Tr.
595). Dr. Boehman stated that Plaintiff's psychological
functioning may impact her functioning in social and
occupational environments. He stated that given
Plaintiff's age and physical issues, a less physically
challenging position would better fit her job needs. (Tr.
596). He noted that if Plaintiff was under stress, she may
claim that simple responsibilities are too demanding for her.
(Id.). Dr. Boehman noted that confidence in
Plaintiff's ability to assume self-care may be fostered
through a supportive attitude and a time-limited focus with
explicit and constructive instruction to engage in behavioral
changes. (Id.). He encouraged Plaintiff to seek
counseling for her depression and anxiety.
also was seen by three State Agency consultants. In October
2015, State Agency medical consultant Dr. Suzanne Johnson,
D.O., completed a “Physical Residual Functional
Capacity Assessment.” (Tr. 169-71). Dr. Johnson opined
that Plaintiff could lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally
and 25 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for about 6 hours
in an 8-hour workday and sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour
workday; frequently balance, stoop and crawl; and climb
ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. (Tr. 169-71).
August 2015, State Agency psychological consultant Dr.
Maurice Rudmann, Ph.D., completed a “Psychiatric Review
Technique Form.” (Tr. 134-36). Dr. Rudmann opined that
Plaintiff had mild restrictions on activities of daily
living; moderate difficulties in maintaining social
functioning; moderate difficulties in maintaining
concentration, persistence, or pace; and no repeated episodes
of decompensation. (Tr. 134). Dr. Rudmann also completed a
“Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment.”
(Tr. 137-39). Dr. Rudmann indicated that Plaintiff was
moderately limited in her ability to: understand, remember,
and carry out detailed instructions; maintain attention and
concentration for extended periods; complete a normal workday
and work week without interruptions from psychologically
based symptoms; perform at a consistent pace without an
unreasonable number and length of rest periods; interact
appropriately with the general public; and respond
appropriately to changes in the work setting. (Id.).
October 2015, State Agency psychological consultant Dr. Keith
Bauer, Ph.D., also completed a “Psychiatric Review
Technique Form” and a “Mental Residual Functional
Capacity Assessment, ” Dr. Bauer concurred with Dr.
Rudmann's findings. (Tr. 167-68, 171-73).
found that Plaintiff had past relevant work as a cleaner,
housekeeping. The Vocational Expert (VE) testified that this
job required light exertion with a specific vocational
preparation of 2. (Tr. 21, 81).
Relevant Hearing Testimony
Plaintiff's hearing, held on May 12, 2017, Plaintiff
testified that she had tried to obtain a GED, but she did not
pass. (Tr. 51). She had completed the eleventh grade. (Tr.
50). Plaintiff also testified that she has difficulty with
math but she is capable of doing simple math. Plaintiff
stated she could make change and manage her money jointly
with her husband. (Tr. 51-52). Plaintiff testified that she
could read pretty well, but later opined that she was
“not the best reader.” (Tr. 52, 54). She stated
that she has some trouble with words in a newspaper. (Tr.
her physical impairments, Plaintiff testified that she had
swelling and tingling, muscle spasms, and pain in her hands.
(Tr. 50). Plaintiff stated that she did not have trouble
picking up and holding onto objects, however. (Id.).
She had pain from head to toe, including: spasms and pain in
her neck that radiated to her shoulders and arms. (Tr.
63-64). She has swelling in her knees and pain in her knees
and hips. (Tr. 66). Plaintiff testified that she had bone
spurs that caused pain in her foot. When her foot bothers
her, Plaintiff uses a cane. (Tr. 72). Although Plaintiff
could not recall how often she used the cane, she indicated
that she last used the cane one month prior to the hearing.
(Tr. 72). Plaintiff has custom orthotics made for her shoes.
(Tr. 72-73). Plaintiff also testified that she has chest
pains all of the time. (Tr. 74).
stated that she did not have problems sitting, but she could
sit in a chair for 10-15 minutes before she had to stand up
and move around. (Tr. 71). She estimated she could stand in
one place for 10-15 minutes before sitting down. (Tr. 69).
She testified that she could walk for approximately 10
minutes. (Tr. 70).
her psychological symptoms, Plaintiff testified that she
suffered from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia,
and has trouble sleeping. (Tr. 74). Plaintiff testified she
could not handle heights, as heights caused anxiety and panic
attacks. (Tr. 62, 74-75). Plaintiff testified that her panic
attacks have worsened over the years. She stated that these
panic attacks last as long as the problem that makes her
anxious. (Tr. 365).
Vocational Expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. As
noted above, the VE testified that Plaintiff's previous
job of “cleaner, housekeeping” required light
exertion with an SVP of 2. (Tr. 21, 81). The ALJ asked the VE
to consider whether an individual could perform
Plaintiff's past work if the person:
(1) was the same age, had the same education, and past work
experience as Plaintiff;
(2) was limited to medium work;
(3) could climb ramps and stairs frequently;
(4) never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
(5) balance, stoop, and crawl frequently;
(6) could never work at unprotected heights;
(7) limited to performing simple, routine tasks;
(8) could have frequent contact with coworkers, but can have
only occasional contact with the public; and
(9) is limited to simple, work-related decisions.
(Tr. 81-82, 83). The VE testified that such a person would
be able to perform Plaintiff's past work. (Tr. 82,
84-85). The VE testified that there were other jobs in the
national economy that would accommodate such limitations,
including: (1) packager, hand (medium with SVP of 2); (2)
packer, agricultural (medium with SVP 2); and (3) cook helper
(Medium with SVP 2). The ALJ then asked the VE to consider a
person with the same limitations as the previous hypothetical
except that the individual is limited to light work. The VE
testified that there were jobs that would accommodate these