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Metes v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 7, 2019




         This is an appeal of the administrative denial of disability insurance benefits (DIB) and period of disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In this appeal, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in formulating her residual functional capacity (RFC) and in concluding she is capable of performing her past relevant work. She also claims the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility, specifically in light of her 44-year work history. After considering the parties' joint memorandum of law (doc. 24) and the administrative record (doc. 17), I find that the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff is not disabled is in accordance with the law and supported by substantial evidence; I affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Susan Kay Metes was born on March 29, 1954, and was 61 years old on her alleged onset date, March 1, 2016. Plaintiff completed a two-year nursing program at Elgin College, and worked in a variety of nursing jobs since 1977 including nursing supervisor and Director of Nurses (R. 35-36). Plaintiff's last job as Director of Nursing at Our Lady of Angels Retirement ended in November 2015 when Plaintiff was terminated after a clash with the retirement home's new administrator (R. 39-40, 845). Plaintiff received unemployment benefits for six months thereafter, then searched for new jobs but felt incapable of performing both the physical and mental demands of the job descriptions (R. 40, 56). Plaintiff testified she is unable to work due to leg and back pain, arthritis in her left hand, vision problems subsequent to a stroke, difficulty swallowing due to Barrett's esophagus, insomnia, and depression (R. 43-48). She lives in a home with her adult son who has bipolar disorder. She explained that at times Plaintiff uses a cane to help ambulate smoothly, and has trouble recalling names and events due to insomnia. She performs household chores, albeit slowly; she cooks, vacuums, and does her own laundry (R. 48). She grocery shops, mows her lawn with a tractor, cares for her two dogs and a cat, and handles her own banking (R. 49). Plaintiff's hobbies include cooling off in her above-ground pool, boating, gardening, visiting neighbors and family, and going to the beach to lay in the sand (R. 50). Plaintiff testified that she can walk a long block then needs to rest her legs, she can stand for half an hour, and can sit for a couple of hours at a time (R. 51). She says she can lift a 25-pound bag of dog food and carry it into her house, she can climb stairs “but it is a chore, ” and can pick things up off of the floor (R. 53). She has difficulty reaching above her shoulders and has problems with her left hand (R. 52). She testified that she has fallen about every few months and has a fear of falling (R. 54). The relevant time period for DIB purposes is narrow - from her alleged onset date of March 1, 2016, to December 31, 2019 (Plaintiff's date of last insured, or DLI).

         After a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and history of cerebral infarction with vision disturbance (R. 13). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled, because she retains the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b) except as follows:

The claimant can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, crouch, and crawl, but can frequently balance and kneel. The claimant can never climb ladders and scaffolds. The claimant can frequently handle and finger with the non-dominant left upper extremity. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and avoid all exposure to unprotected heights. Finally, the claimant can do no work requiring reading very small print or seeing small parts, but can read a computer monitor and regular print.

(R. 16). With the assistance of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a House Care Facility Administrator, as generally performed in the national economy (R. 20-21). Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied review (R. 1-2). After exhausting his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         B. Standard of Review

         To be entitled to DIB, a claimant 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 12 months.” See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(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.” See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         The Social Security Administration, to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated detailed regulations. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine if a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence, the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment(s) (i.e., one that significantly limits his ability to perform work-related functions); (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of Appendix 1, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) considering the Commissioner's determination of claimant's RFC, whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his prior work, the ALJ must decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f), (g).

         In reviewing the ALJ's findings, this Court must ask if substantial evidence supports those findings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The ALJ's factual findings are conclusive if “substantial evidence consisting of relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion exists.” Keeton v. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citation and quotations omitted). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ even if it finds the evidence preponderates against the ALJ's decision. See Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066 (citations omitted).

         C. Discussion

         1. RFC

         Plaintiff complains that the ALJ erred by formulating an RFC that fails to account for her limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace resulting from depression and pain. Relatedly, she argues that the ALJ erred by finding her capable of performing her past relevant work as a Health Care Facility ...

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