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Onuska v. Saul

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

September 20, 2019

STEPHANIE ONUSKA, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          SEAN P. FLVNN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of her claims for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). As the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision failed to employ the proper standards and was not supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s decision is reversed and remanded.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on November 3, 2014 (Tr. 224–29). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s claim both initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 69–79, 82–93). Th e ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 31–63). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and, accordingly, denied Plaintiff’s claim for benefits (Tr. 12–30). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which was 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).

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND THE ALJ’S DECISION

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1984, claimed disability beginning October 1, 2008, which she later amended to November 3, 2014 (Tr. 15, 24). Plaintiff has a ninth-grade education and is illiterate (Tr. 24, 39). Plaintiff has no past relevant work experience (Tr. 24). Plaintiff alleged disability due to bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, and migraines (Tr. 69, 55–56).

         In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in subst antial gainf ul act iv it y since November 3, 2014 (Tr. 17). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder (Tr. 17). Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had no 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. 18). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertion limitations: Plaintiff is limited to no work with the general public, and to occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors. She is also limited to performing routine and repetitive tasks with no quotas (Tr. 21).

         After considering Plaintiff’s noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined Plaintiff has no past relevant work (Tr. 24). The VE, however, testified that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 24). Based on Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 25).

         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, 416.920. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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). 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 ...


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