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Rodriguez-Torres v. Saul

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

September 10, 2019

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



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of her 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

         Previously, on November 18, 2010, Plaintiff had filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) (Tr. 125). An ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 17, 2013, denying those applications (Tr. 119-38). Subsequently and at issue here, on February 26, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, alleging an onset date of April 18, 2013 (Tr. 15, 34). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim for a period of disability and DIB both initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 15, 34-36). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 15, 158). Per Plaintiff's request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 15, 25-56). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits (Tr. 9-24). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied (Tr. 1-8). 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 in 1962, claimed disability beginning April 18, 2013 (Tr. 15, 29). Plaintiff obtained a high school education (Tr. 50). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work as an industrial cleaner (Tr. 41). Plaintiff alleged disability due to fibromyalgia, arthritis, scoliosis, and lower back pain (Tr. 18, 42).

         In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2013 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 18, 2013, the alleged onset date (Tr. 18). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that there were insufficient subjective and objective evidence, and no medical signs or laboratory findings, to substantiate the existence of a medically determinable impairment through the date last insured (Tr. 19). Therefore, the ALJ determined that the claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from April 18, 2013, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2013, the date last insured (Tr. 19).

         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 the 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. Y uckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled 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 the 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 by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002).

         IV. Analysis

         Plaintiff argues here that the ALJ erred by not considering the findings in t he prior ALJ decision (Doc. 22 at 5). Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record by failing to order a consultative examination regarding the Plaintiff's psychological difficulties (Doc. 22 at 9). For the reasons that follow, the ...

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