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Shannon v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

September 24, 2019

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



         The Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner’s denial of her claims for Child’s Insurance Benefits (CIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.


         The Plaintiff was born in 1993, completed high school, and has no past relevant work experience. (R. 20, 23, 249). In May 2015, the Plaintiff applied for CIB and SSI, alleging disability as of December 1, 2011, due to disruptive behavior, mild retardation, attention deficit disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (R. 116, 144). The Social Security Administration denied the Plaintiff’s applications both initially and on reconsideration. (R. 144-233).

         At the Plaintiff’s request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on June 12, 2017. (R. 12-48). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert (VE) also testified. Id.

         In a decision dated June 27, 2017, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) had neither attained the age of twenty-two[2] nor engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date; (2) had the severe impairments of a learning disability, major depression, reactive attachment disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, PTSD, mood disorder not otherwise specified, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); (3) did not, however, have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments; (4) had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of work subject to certain non-exertional limitations; and (5) based upon the VE’s testimony, was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-namely, the representative occupations of cleaner, marking clerk, and advertising material distributor. (R. 237-57). In light of these findings, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 250-51).

         The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review. (R. 1-6). Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The Social Security Act (the Act) defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).[3] A physical or mental impairment under the Act “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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Social Security Regulations (Regulations) prescribe “a five-step, sequential evaluation process.” Carter v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 726 F. App’x 737, 739 (11th Cir. 2018) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[4] Under this process, an ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is performing substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) has the RFC to perform past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work in the national economy given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Carter, 726 F. App’x at 739 (citing Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). While the claimant has the burden of proof through step four, the burden temporarily shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Sampson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 694 F. App’x 727, 734 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)). If the Commissioner carries that burden, the claimant must then prove that she cannot perform the work identified by the Commissioner. Id. In the end, “the overall burden of demonstrating the existence of a disability . . . rests with the claimant.” Washington v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1280 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         A claimant who does not prevail at the administrative level may seek judicial review in federal court provided that the Commissioner has issued a final decision on the matter after a hearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether he applied the correct legal standards. Id.; Hargress v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm’r, 883 F.3d 1302, 1305 n.2 (11th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hargress, 883 F.3d at 1305 n.2 (quoting Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). In evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, the Court “may not decide the facts anew, make credibility determinations, or re-weigh the evidence.” Carter, 726 F. App’x at 739 (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)). While the court accords deference to the Commissioner’s factual findings, “no such deference is given to [his] legal conclusions.” Keel-Desensi v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 1417326, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 29, 2019) (citations omitted).


         The Plaintiff claims on appeal that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinion of a licensed psychologist, Dr. Scott Hoch, who examined her in January 2014. (Doc. 21 at 21-31). The Commissioner counters that the ALJ’s assessment of Dr. Hoch’s opinion complies with the applicable regulations and is supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 31-38. Upon a thorough review of the record and the parties’ submissions, the Court agrees with the Commissioner.


         In evaluating an individual’s disability claim, an ALJ “must consider all medical opinions in a claimant’s case record, together with other relevant evidence.” McClurkin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 625 F. App’x 960, 962 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b)).[5] “‘Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the claimant’s] impairment(s), including [the claimant’s] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite [her] impairment(s), and [the claimant’s] physical or mental restrictions.’” Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178-79 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2)). If a doctor’s statement rises to the level of a “medical opinion, ” an ALJ “must state with particularity” the weight given to that opinion “and the reasons therefor.” Id. at 1179 (citation omitted). In rendering this determination, the ALJ must consider: (1) whether the doctor has examined the claimant; (2) the length, nature, and extent of the doctor’s relationship with the claimant; (3) the medical evidence and the explanation supporting the doctor’s opinion; ...

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