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Wheelock v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida

September 18, 2019

STEPHANIE A. WHEELOCK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          LESLIE R. HOFFMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Stephanie A. Wheelock (Claimant) appeals the Commissioner of Social Security’s (Commissioner) final decision denying her applications for disability benefits. (Doc. 1). The Claimant raises three assignments of error challenging the Commissioner’s final decision and, based on those assignments of error, requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or, alternatively, for further proceedings that must be completed within 120 days. (Doc. 15 at 15-18, 21-25, 28-31). The Commissioner argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) committed no legal error and that her decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. (Id. at 18-21, 25-28, 30-33). Upon review of the record, the Court finds that the Commissioner’s final decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Procedural History

         This case stems from the Claimant’s applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, which she filed on September 16, 2009. ( Doc. 11-5 at 2-11).[1] Th e Claimant alleged a disability onset date of July 2, 2005. (Id. at 2, 4).

         The Claimant’s applications were denied on initial review and on reconsideration. The matter then proceeded to a hearing before an ALJ. (Doc. 11-2 at 29-58). On June 10, 2011, the ALJ entered a decision finding that the Claimant was not disabled between her alleged onset date, July 2, 2005, and the date of the ALJ’s decision. (Id. at 11-22). The Claimant requested review of the ALJ’s decision, but the Appeals Council denied her request. (Id. at 2-4).

         On November 21, 2011, the Claimant appealed the Commissioner’s final decision to this Court. Wheelock v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., Case No. 6:11-cv-18 62 -JA -GJK, Doc. 1 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 21, 2011). On July 20, 2012, prior to the matter being fully briefed, the Commissioner filed an unopposed motion to reverse and remand the case for the following reasons:

The [Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”)] will offer Plaintiff a hearing; update the administrative record; obtain a medical expert to determine the nature and severity of Plaintiff’s physical impairment; and further evaluate the [Residual Functional Capacity] with specific references to evidence in support. If the ALJ rejects opinions from treating/examining sources, the rationale will be rooted in the case record with specific evidentiary support. The ALJ will further evaluate Plaintiff’s mental impairment and establish specific work-related limitations. The ALJ will obtain the assistance of a vocational expert to determine the erosion of the occupational base and the ALJ will issue a new decision.

Id. at Doc. 20. The Court granted the motion and remanded the case to the Commissioner to conduct further proceedings as set forth above. (Doc. 11-11 at 24-25 ).

         On remand, the Appeals Council entered an order vacating the Commissioner’s final decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (Id. at 30-32). Thereafter, the ALJ held a hearing, at which the Claimant and her counsel appeared. (Doc. 11-10 at 48-72). Following the hearing, the ALJ sent medical interrogatories to Dr. John Kwock, a board certified orthopaedic surgeon, asking him to determine whether the Claimant met Listing 1.04. (Doc. 11-18 at 48-51). Dr. Kwock responded to the interrogatories and provided a functional capacity assessment. (Id. at 53-61). The ALJ then held a supplemental hearing so the Claimant could cross-examine Dr. Kwock. (Doc. 11-10 at 33-45).

         On March 2, 2016, the ALJ entered a decision finding that the Claimant was not disabled between her alleged onset date, July 2, 2005, and the date of the ALJ’s decision. (Id. a t 5 -22). T h i s decision ultimately became the Commissioner’s final decision.

         On May 20, 2016, the Claimant appealed the Commissioner’s final decision to this Court. Wheelock v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., Case No. 6:16-cv-860-RBD-KRS, Doc. 1 (M.D. Fla. May 20, 2016). On appeal, the Claimant argued that the ALJ erred by: 1) failing to state the weight given to Dr. Charles E. Kollmer’s opinion; 2) assigning no weight to Dr. James K. Shea’s opinions; and 3) finding that the Claimant’s testimony concerning her limitations was not entirely credible. Id. at Doc. 12 at 17-20, 24-27, 32-33 . Based on these arguments and the history of the case, the Claimant requested that the case be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits. Id. at 37-38. Alternatively, the Claimant requested that the Court place a time limit on the Commissioner to complete administrative proceedings on remand. Id. at 38.

         On June 28, 2016, United States Magistrate Judge Karla R. Spaulding issued a report agreeing with each of the Claimant’s assignments of error. (Doc. 11-21 at 53-69 (Report)). Judge Spaulding rejected the Claimant’s request that the case be remanded for an award of benefits but instead suggested that the Court could require, among other things, that the administrative proceedings be completed within a specific period of time. (Id. at 67-68). Neither party objected to the Report. Therefore, on July 31, 2017, United States District Judge Roy B. Dalton entered an order adopting the Report, reversing and remanding the case for further proceedings, and requiring the Commissioner to complete the administrative proceedings within 120 days from the date of the order. (Id. at 50-52).

         On remand, the Appeals Council entered an order vacating the Commissioner’s final decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s order. (Id. at 73). Thereafter, the ALJ held a hearing at which the Claimant and her counsel appeared. (Doc. 11-20 at 30-52). On February 13, 2018, the ALJ entered a decision finding that the Claimant was not disabled between her alleged onset date, July 2, 2005, and the date of the ALJ’s decision. (Id. at 5-17). This decision ultimately became the Commissioner’s final decision.

         On June 8, 2018, the Claimant appealed the Commissioner’s final decision to this Court. Wheelock v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., Case No. 6:18-cv-8 94 -LRH, Doc. 1 (M.D. Fla. June 8, 2018). The case has been fully briefed and is now ripe for review.

         II. The ALJ’s Decision

         The ALJ found that the Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; carpal tunnel syndrome; a history of endometriosis; and an anxiety-related disorder. (Doc. 11-20 at 7-8). The ALJ determined that none of the foregoing impairments, individually or in combination, met or medically equaled any listed impairment. (Id. at 8-10).

         The ALJ proceeded to find that the Claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and § 416.967(b)[2] with the following additional limitations:

[T]he claimant cannot climb or crawl. The claimant can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and reach, and frequently handle and finger. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks, without quotas or high-speed production.

(Id. at 10). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that the Claimant could not perform her past relevant work. (Id. at 16). However, the ALJ did find that the Claimant could perform other work in the national economy, including office helper, mail clerk, and router. (Id. at 16-17). In light of these findings, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant was not disabled between her alleged onset date, July 2, 2005, and the date of the ALJ’s decision, February 13, 2018. (Id. at 17-18).

         III. Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court’s review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). The Commissioner’s findings of fact are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is defined as “more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the Commissioner’s decision, when determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). The Court may not reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, and, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, the reviewing court must affirm it if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         IV. ...


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