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Silas v. Saul

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

September 26, 2019

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



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). As the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and employed proper legal standards, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB on September 15, 2014 (Tr. 168–71). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s claim both initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 90–93, 99–104). The ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 754–801). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and, accordingly, denied Plaintiff’s claim for benefits (Tr. 16–37). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied (Tr. 1–7). 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).


         Plaintiff, who was born in 1968, claimed disability beginning September 13, 2014 (Tr. 183). Plaintiff obtained at least a high school education (Tr. 188). Plaintiff’s past relevant work experience included work as a corrections officer (Tr. 188). Plaintiff alleged disability due to pulmonary embolism, asthma, fibromyalgia, lupus, leukocytosis, chronic sinusitis, polycystic ovarian disease, oligomenorrhea, and back pain (Tr. 65, 77).

         In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2019, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 13, 2014, the alleged onset date (Tr. 21). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, asthma, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), deep vein thrombosis with history of pulmonary emboli, depression and anxiety disorder (Tr. 21). Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an 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. 21). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work except she could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; could occasionally climb ramps or stairs; should avoid exposure to hazards such as heights or machinery with moving parts; should avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, or poorly ventilated areas; and could frequently handle and finger with the upper extremities. Plaintiff was also limited to no production rate pace work and occasional changes in routine workplace setting (Tr. 23).

         After considering Plaintiff’s noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work (Tr. 29). Given Plaintiff’s background and RFC, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 30). Based on Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 31).


         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 supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002).


         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff’s severe impairments of fibromyalgia and lupus at step two and three and of the sequential evaluation process and in his RFC assessment; (2) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff’s manipulative limitations in his RFC assessment; and (3) whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff’s obesity.[2] For the reasons that follow, the ALJ’s decision is affirmed.

         I. Lupus

         Plaintiff first contends that at step two of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff’s lupus as a severe impairment. Particularly, Plaintiff argues that her testimony that she suffers from lupus is consistent with the objective evidence on record showing elevated C-Reactive protein (CRP) and positive ANA tests (Tr. 343, 346, 418–19, 478-527, 581, 750).[3] Further Plaintiff argues that her lupus appears as a diagnosis that causes significant limitations throughout the medical record. The Commissioner counters that the objective evidence does not establish that Plaintiff met the diagnostic criteria for lupus. Particularly, the Commissioner argues that the elevated C-reactive protein indicated inflammation but does not ...

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