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Santiago v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 18, 2019

BLANCA IRIS SANTIAGO, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          LESLIE R. HOFFMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Blanca Iris Santiago (Claimant) appeals the Commissioner of Social Security’s (Commissioner) final decision partially denying her application for disability benefits. (Doc. 1). The Claimant raises two arguments challenging the Commissioner’s final decision and, based on those arguments, requests that the matter be reversed and remanded to determine whether she is entitled to disability benefits for the period that the Administrate Law Judge (ALJ) found she was not disabled. (Docs. 28 at 10-14, 19-21, 26; 30; 35). The Commissioner agrees that the case should be reversed and remanded, but, as discussed in more detail below, the Commissioner argues that the case should be remanded for a de novo review of the Claimant’s entire application for disability benefits – including the favorable portion of the Commissioner’s final decision. (Docs. 28 at 15-19, 22-26; 34)). Upon review, the Court finds that the Commissioner’s final decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED so the ALJ may complete a de novo review of the Claimant’s entire application for disability benefits.

         I. The Procedural History

         A. The Application for Benefits

         This case stems from the Claimant’s application for disability insurance benefits. (R. 130-34). The Claimant alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2013. (R. 130). The Claimant’s application was denied on initial review and on reconsideration. The matter proceeded before an ALJ, who issued her decision on April 21, 2015. (R. 13-31).

         B. The ALJ’s Decision

         The ALJ found that the Claimant suffers from the following severe impairments: arthritis of the hips with early bilateral avascular necrosis; fibromyalgia; inflammatory arthritis; mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; obesity; chronic liver disease; chronic pancreatitis; diabetes mellitus; and hypertension. (R. 15). The ALJ also found that the Claimant suffers from the following non-severe impairments: affective disorder; and anxiety disorder. (R. 15-18). The ALJ, however, determined that none of the foregoing impairments, individually or in combination, met or medically equaled any listed impairment. (R. 18-20).

         At step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that the Claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC) prior to September 1, 2014 was limited to sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a)[1] with the following specific limitations:

[T]he claimant could lift or carry 10 pounds occasionally (up to one-third of the workday), stand or walk for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb a ramp or stairs, but never craw, and never climb a ladder, rope, or scaffold. The claimant could not constantly handle or finger. Additionally, the claimant had to avoid all exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, excessive vibration, direct prolonged exposure to sunlight, and hazards such as work at heights or with dangerous moving machinery.

(R. 20). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that, prior to September 1, 2014, the Claimant was able to perform her past relevant work as a receptionist. (R. 28-29). As such, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant was not disabled between her alleged onset date, June 1, 2013, through August 31, 2014. (R. 30).

         The ALJ proceeded to find that the Claimant’s RFC changed as of September 1, 2014. Specifically, the ALJ found that the Claimant continued to have the same functional limitations detailed above with an additional limitation of being off task for fifteen percent (15%) of the workday. (R. 28). Based on this new RFC, the ALJ found that, as of September 1, 2014, the Claimant was unable to perform her past relevant work and other work in the national economy. (R. 29-30). Thus, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant became disabled on September 1, 2014, and remained so through the date of the decision. (R. 30).

         C. The Appeal Council’s Decision

         The Claimant filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, stating:

[The Claimant] does not challenge the favorable decision regarding her disability and right to receive benefits. The only issue being challenged is the decision that [the Claimant] was not disabled prior to [September 1, 2014].

(R. 8). The Appeals Council denied the Claimant’s request for review, (R. 1-3), and the ALJ’s decision became the Commissioner’s final decision.

         D. The Proceedings Before the District Court

         1. The Complaint

         This case has had a very lengthy history before this Court. On October 25, 2016, the Claimant filed her complaint, in which she stated that she is not challenging “the favorable decision regarding her disability and right to receive benefits.” (Doc. 1 at ¶ 7). Instead, the Claimant stated that she is only appealing the Commissioner’s final decision “that she was not disabled prior to September 14 [sic], 2014.” (Id.). The complaint did not set forth any assignments of error. The Commissioner filed his answer and a copy of the administrative record on January 17, 2017 (Doc. 11). That same day, the Court issued its scheduling order, which set a deadline of June 7, 2017 for the filing of the Joint Memorandum (Doc. 14).

         2. The Motion to Remand and its Denial

         On May 10, 2017, the Commissioner filed a motion for entry of judgment and remand. (Doc. 17 (Motion to Remand)). In it, the Commissioner requested that the case be remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for the following reason:

[O]n remand, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) will further evaluate the claimant’s application for disability for the entire period at issue and, if warranted, provide further rationale to explain the reasons for the claimant’s established onset date and, if necessary, obtain medical expert testimony to establish when the claimant became disabled.

(Id. at 1).

         The Claimant filed a response, in which she agreed that the case should be remanded for further proceedings but noted that she did not appeal the favorable portion of the Commissioner’s decision. (Doc. 18 at 1-2). Instead, the Claimant argued that the favorable portion of the Commissioner’s decision should remain intact, and the proceedings on remand should be limited solely to determining whether the Claimant became disabled prior to September 1, 2014. (Id. at 1-2). In support, the Claimant cited several cases from this District that, according to her, addressed the same issue and ordered remands limited to review of only the unfavorable portion of the Commissioner’s final decision. (Id. at 2 (citing Adkins v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., Case No. 6:16-cv-754-Orl-31TBS, 2017 WL 1289912 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 20, 2017) report and recommendation adoptedby, 2017 WL 1234828 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 4, 2017); Holmes v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., Case No. 5:16-cv-00499-PRL, 2017 WL 461604 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 3, 2017); Rainey v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., Case No. ...


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