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Chavis v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 13, 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 by finding her systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) did not meet Listing 14.02; by failing to offer good cause for assigning little weight to her treating physician, Dr. Stark; and by rejecting her testimony about her pain. After considering the parties' memorandum of law (docs.12, 16) and the administrative record (doc. 8), I find that the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff is not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence and remand for further proceedings as set forth herein.

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Kimberly Renay Chavis was born on June 28, 1968, and was forty-seven years old on her alleged onset date, November 13, 2015. She earned a four-year college degree in business administration. Following a long career in the military, she was medically retired in January 2017 after being assessed with lupus in November 2015. Her last job was military recruiter and retention officer (R. 14). Plaintiff testified she is unable to perform even sedentary work due to pain and weakness from lupus. She suffers from joint pain throughout her body (neck, shoulders, elbows, knees, hands, ankles) that lasts two weeks a month. She also has swelling and tingling in her feet and when she moves her joints. During these flare ups, she uses a walker to ambulate. Plaintiff also suffers from insomnia, “lupus fog, ” poor vision, bouts of difficulty with memory and concentration, and medication side effects. To help overcome her “lupus fog, ” she uses a dry erase board to record appointments and works on puzzles. She lives with her husband and relies on him to do most household chores. She assists with laundry by separating the clothes, and she accompanies her husband grocery shopping. Her husband assists her with showering, or when he is not available, she sits in a hospital chair in her shower. Because she has difficulty buttoning, she wears clothes she can pull over her head. She does not drive, but her aunt drives her where she needs to go. According to Plaintiff, she can lift 10-15 pounds, can sit for two hours then must get up and move around, can stand for thirty minutes to one hour, and can walk for up to 200 meters. While she can grasp with her dominant right hand, she has trouble grasping with her left hand due to arthritic swelling in her fingers and shooting pain up to her elbow. She can turn pages, but has difficulty typing repetitively due to problems with her left hand.

         After a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, left epicondylitis, thrombocytopenia, and anemia (R. 13). He also determined Plaintiff does not have any impairments or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. 13). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled, because she retains the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b) as follows:

… the claimant can lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and never ladders, ropes and/or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, vibration and workplace hazards.

(R. 13). With the assistance of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant composite job as a recruiter and recruit instructor, as its exertional demands exceed her residual functional capacity (R. 20). The ALJ found that she could perform the jobs of office helper, information clerk, and marker (R. 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. Listing 14.02

         At step three, Plaintiff has the burden of establishing the existence of an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the criteria of a medical listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). The purpose of the medical listings is to “streamline the decision process by identifying those claimants whose medical impairments are so severe that it is likely they would be found disabled regardless of their vocational background.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. ...

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