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Huebert v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 16, 2019



          MARK A. PIZZO, JUDGE

         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 by failing to find his upper extremity impairments severe and failing to include limitations in his RFC related to such impairments; by failing to find he met a Listing impairment; by finding he acknowledged he might have substance abuse issues; and by improperly weighing opinions of treating and non-treating medical sources. Plaintiff also asserts the ALJ was not properly appointed under the United States Constitution and lacked properly authority to hear and decide this case. After considering the parties' joint memorandum of law (doc. 26) and the administrative record (doc. 16), I find that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence; I remand for further administrative proceedings.

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Joseph Wade Huebert was born in 1977 and has a high school education. He has worked since he was 13, mostly as a laborer. His jobs include carpentry; construction; bartending; window-unit air-conditioning installer and servicer helper; and kitchen helper. The relevant time period for DIB purposes is from March 1, 2014, to March 31, 2017 (Plaintiff's date of last insured, or DLI). When asked why he alleges disability beginning March 1, 2014, he explained that is when he “started losing control of [his ] body, being able to actually do normal day to day things (R. 95). He testified that he has lost the use of his hands (his hands cramp up with he uses a knife and fork after about three to five minutes), and he has trouble walking (he can walk less than a quarter of a mile due to pain and nerve problems in his knees, ankle, and hip) (R. 99-100).

         Realizing he was no longer capable of physical labor, he enrolled in online design courses but was unable to complete them due to hand cramps and difficulty sitting in front of his computer (R. 105). He also has a history of depression and had several suicide attempts prior to the alleged onset date (R. 107).

         After a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post anterior cervical discectomy and fusion; meniscal tear of the right knee, status post arthroscopic medial meniscectomy; bilateral knee arthritis; traumatic arthritis of the right ankle, status post internal fixation; dyspnea; and depressive disorder” (R. 19). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff did not have an 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 (R. 19). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled, because he retains the RFC to perform light work except as follows:

… he could stand and/or walk for four hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently stoop; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme environmental cold, vibrations, dusts, odors, fumes, and gases, and he must avoid workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights and unshielded rotating machinery. He could perform simple work with a specific vocational preparation (SVP) level no higher than two, and he can frequently interact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.

(R. 21) With the assistance of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work, but could perform jobs existing nationally including final assembler, food and beverage order clerk, and table worker (R. 28). The AC denied review. Plaintiff, after exhausting his administrative remedies, 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. ...

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