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Leblanc v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

September 25, 2019

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



         This case has been referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for disposition pursuant to the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, based on the parties’ consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction (see ECF Nos. 3, 4). It is now before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401–34.

         Upon review of the record before this court, it is the opinion of the undersigned that the findings of fact and determinations of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence; thus, the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.


         On January 30, 2015, Plaintiff filed her application for DIB, and in the application she alleged disability beginning January 1, 2011 (tr. 15).[2] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and thereafter she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on February 22, 2017, and on June 5, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff “not disabled, ” as defined under the Act, at any time through the date of his decision (tr. 15–30). The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff’s request for review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this court. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). This appeal followed.


         In denying Plaintiff’s claims, the ALJ made the following relevant findings (see tr. 15–30):

         (1) Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Act on March 31, 2015[3];

         (2) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period;

         (3) Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depression, and anxiety;

         (4) Plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;

         (5) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with certain non-exertional limitations;

         (6) Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work because that work would have exceeded her RFC, but she could have performed other available work which accommodated her RFC and other factors;

         (7) Plaintiff was 55 years old, which is defined as an individual of advanced age, on the date last insured;

         (8) Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English;

         (9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that Plaintiff is “not disabled, ” whether or not she has transferable job skills;

         (10) Jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed during the relevant period; therefore, Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, at any time during the relevant period.


         Review of the Commissioner’s final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence from the record and was a result of the application of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or that proper legal standards were not applied.”); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.” Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the Commissioner’s decision will not be disturbed if in light of the record as a whole the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, the decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The Act defines disability as an “inability 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To qualify as a disability the physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the claimant is not only unable to do her previous work, “but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)–(g), the Commissioner analyzes a disability claim in five steps:

         1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled.

         2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, her impairments must be severe before she can be found disabled.

         3. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity and she has severe impairments that have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and if her impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.

         4. If the claimant’s impairments do not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled.

         5. Even if the claimant’s impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her RFC and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

         The claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that keeps her from performing her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. If the claimant establishes such an impairment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy which, given the claimant’s impairments, the claimant can perform. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1052 (11th Cir. 1986). If the Commissioner carries this burden, the claimant must then prove she cannot perform the work suggested by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).


         A. Relevant Personal and Employment History

         Plaintiff was fifty-seven years of age on February 22, 2017, the date of her hearing before the ALJ (tr. 40). She had completed the twelfth grade and some college and received a “certificate in medical billing and coding” and in health services management (tr. 41). Plaintiff was living alone in an apartment, had a driver’s license, and was able to drive (tr. 40).

         Plaintiff last worked as a full-time caregiver for her parents, from 2011 until her mother moved to an assisted-living facility on August 1, 2013 (tr. 42, 61). Plaintiff noted she had not looked or applied for work since January 2011 (tr. 41). Plaintiff held other prior jobs, including: (1) “recovery clerk” at a discount store in 2010, fifteen hours a week, where she replaced items on shelves (tr. 45, 217); (2) counter clerk at a drycleaner in 2010, forty hours per week, where she ran the cash register, kept the store in order, tallied the register, and closed the store (tr. 45–46, 217); (3) proofreader and editor from 1991 to 2009, forty hours per week(tr. 43–44, 217); and (4) student assistant between 2006 and 2007, where she answered phones, made appointments, proctored tests, developed inventory lists, and organized equipment (tr. 44).

         B. Relevant Medical History[4]

         (1) Evidence that Pre-Dates the Relevant Period (< January 2011)

         Plaintiff sought treatment at Catholic Charities in June 2000, and complained of feeling anxious, sad, lonely, and fearful (tr. 307). She was described as presenting with PTSD[5] and panic disorder without agoraphobia (id.). Plaintiff participated in eighty-four cognitive-behavioral therapy (“CBT”) sessions (id.). The provider assessed Plaintiff’s Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) at 50 at the start of treatment, and at 59 at the end of treatment (id.).[6] Plaintiff’s treatment was terminated in 2002 due to lack of contact from her (tr. 308).

         (2) Evidence from the Relevant Period (January 1, 2011, to March 31, 2015)

         Susan Danahy, Ph.D., conducted a consultative disability evaluation on July 25, 2011(tr. 311–14). Dr. Danahy described Plaintiff as “extremely tense, anxious and overly reactive” but fully oriented, with a fully intact memory and no evidence of a thought disorder (tr. 312). Plaintiff’s ability to form rapport was fair, and her insight and judgment seemed grossly intact (id.). Dr. Danahy assessed a GAF score of 48, as well as panic disorder with agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder with a noted prior diagnosis of PTSD (tr. 314). Dr. Danahy noted Plaintiff had never been evaluated by a psychiatrist and suggested such a referral for medication management, at least with respect to Plaintiff’s anxiety (see id.).

         Plaintiff first reported to Westside Family Medicine - First Physicians on May 21, 2012 (tr. 316). She saw Edwin Taylor, M.D., and complained of anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia (id.). Dr. Taylor noted that Plaintiff’s medications were “effective and working well for her, ” that Plaintiff’s intellectual functioning and memory were intact, and that Plaintiff was “oriented x3 [i.e., to person, place, and time]” but that she appeared anxious (id.). Plaintiff returned on November 21, 2012, and was observed to have a normal mood and appropriate affect (tr. 318). Her medications included Citalopram 10mg, Temazepam 30mg, and Valium 5mg (tr. 317). On May 22, 2013, Dr. Taylor noted that Plaintiff’s mood was normal and her affect appropriate; he assessed depressive disorder (tr. 321–22). At Plaintiff’s next visit, on November 22, 2013, her chief complaint was anxiety (tr. 323). Dr. Taylor commented, “the anxiety disorder has been essentially unchanged since the last visit and has been “waxing and waning in severity, ” that Plaintiff’s “mood has been improving with medication, ” and that a mental status examination revealed Plaintiff to be oriented x3, with intact memory and intact immediate and long-term recall (323–24). Plaintiff returned for six-month follow-up appointments in May and November 2014 (tr. 326–30). She was again found to be oriented x3, with intact memory and intact immediate and long-term recall (tr. 328). Plaintiff denied symptoms of depression and difficulty sleeping (tr. 329). She was instructed to call or return to the clinic if her symptoms worsened or persisted (tr. 330).

         On April 20, 2015, Janice T. Griffin, LCSW, wrote a letter indicating that Plaintiff had “been in individual therapy with [her] for the past 6 months, ” or since approximately October 2014 (tr. 335). Ms. Griffin opined that Plaintiff was “likely unable to be successful in any occupational setting” due to some of her “severe ...

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