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Conley v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 31, 2019

BRIAN EDMOND CONLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MARK A. P1ZZO, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This is an appeal of the administrative denial of disability insurance benefits (DIB) and period of disability benefits.[1] See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge (ALJ) did not properly weigh the medical evidence. After considering the parties' joint memorandum (doc. 18) and the administrative record, I find the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. I affirm.

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Brian Conley, 49 years old on the date of his administrative hearing, alleged a disability onset date of August 29, 2013, due to an accident on the job. He was working for a pool company, “on a ladder, pulling a pump off of a stack, and the box broke, and I came off the ladder with the pump, and I tore my right shoulder up.” (R. 55) Plaintiff has a high school education and an associate's degree in substance abuse counseling. His past work experience is as a handyman, pool repair worker, and counselor. As a counselor, Plaintiff worked as a contractor with the Department of Corrections to counsel detainees with substance abuse issues. He lives alone.

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to neck and spine impairments, a torn right rotator cuff, asthma, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, ADHD, and depression. He obtained a worker's compensation settlement related to his ladder injury that paid for two shoulder surgeries, but he has no income, no insurance, and no family to help care for him. He testified he is in constant pain, and “[t]he injections, the epidurals, none of those have helped in any way. They don't alleviate any of the pain.” (R. 63) He feels “stuck. I've been really stuck. I mean, since this accident, it's kind of like I've been a spiraling effect.” (Id.)

         After a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, right rotator cuff tear, and right brachial plexopathy. (R. 27) The ALJ also found Plaintiff suffers from the non-severe impairments of asthma, osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, left-side distal biceps tendon rupture, ADHD, PTSD, substance induced mood disorder, and history of alcohol and cannabis abuse. (Id.) The ALJ determined that, before March 31, 2017, Plaintiff was not disabled, because he retained the RFC to perform less than a full range of light work as follows:

The claimant can occasionally lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 frequently. He could sit/stand/walk for up to six hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant could rarely engage in overhead reaching using his right upper extremity. He could frequently use his right hand for handling/fingering activities, and the claimant had no limitation in regards to feeling [and] using his right hand. The claimant had no postural limitations prior to his established onset date, and the claimant could have occasional exposure to exposed heights, vibrations, and temperature extremes.

(R. 29) The ALJ found that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a substance abuse counselor. (R. 31)

         Beginning on March 31, 2017, however, the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled, because his RFC as of that date deteriorated to less than a full range of sedentary work. (Id.) The ALJ based this on the RFC assessment of Wu Zhuge, M.D., Plaintiff's treating physician who opined that Plaintiff suffers from disabling cervical stenosis. (R. 923-24) Dr. Zhuge reported that Plaintiff's spinal cord is so compressed that, as of March 31, 2017, it was “too dangerous [for Plaintiff] to work.” (R. 924) The ALJ decided Plaintiff could not return to his past relevant work and did not have transferable work skills. Consequently, according to the ALJ, there were no jobs Plaintiff could perform in the national economy after March 31, 2017. (R. 31-32)

         Lastly, even though Plaintiff has a medical past of in-patient substance abuse rehab, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's documented substance use is “not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.” (R. 32) 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 ...


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