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Atkins v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 16, 2019




         This is an action for review of the administrative denial of disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff argues that the decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by rejecting her testimony about pain, by failing to provide good cause for rejecting the opinions of her treating neurosurgeon, and by failing to investigate the apparent conflict between the limitation to “simple tasks with little variation” and the DOT descriptions of the all three jobs the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform. After considering the parties' memoranda (docs. 17 and 18) and the administrative record (doc. 15), I remand for further proceedings consistent with this Order.[1]

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Johnette Rachelle Atkins, born on April 30, 1964, filed applications for period of disability, SSI and DIB on October 26, 2010, alleging disability beginning October 9, 2009. In a decision dated August 31, 2012, ALJ Gregory Froelich denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (R. 58-68: 1-6). However, on July 14, 2015, the district court reversed and remanded the matter to the Commissioner and the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to re-evaluate Dr. Keller's opinions concerning Plaintiff's functional limitations (R. 860-873; R. 820-821). ALJ Froelich consolidated Plaintiff's newer claim for disability benefits with this one and conducted a new hearing on May 12, 2016 (R. 770-792). Plaintiff remained insured through December 31, 2014, thus she must establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to DIB or period of disability benefits (R. 796-797).

         At the 2016 hearing before ALJ Froelich, Plaintiff testified she resides in a home with her twenty-one-year-old son. She earned a college degree in criminal justice, and has worked as an in-home daycare provider, a data entry clerk, an armored car driver, and a mail clerk (R. 786). Plaintiff alleges disability due to pain, fibromyalgia, depression, and difficult-to-control blood pressure (R. 773). She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2015. Plaintiff also suffers from persistent pain in her low back and neck despite two spinal fusion surgeries, in 2010 and 2016 (R. 775). She has neck pain every day, and it causes headaches too. Her back pain shoots down her left hip, into her knee and foot (R. 776). In addition, Plaintiff deals with an array of side effects from the medications he takes to control her pain, depression and blood pressure. Specifically, she describes drowsiness, dry mouth, constipation, and sleep walking. She testified she can sit no more than ten to twenty minutes before she needs to stand up; stand no more than ten minutes; and walk for less than a block due to pain in her hip and knees (R. 778-779). She testified she can lift no more than ten pounds due to achiness in her shoulder, and drops things held in her left arm/hand due to nerve damage and loss of strength stemming from her neck (R. 780). She has trouble lifting and keeping her left arm above her shoulder too.

         Following the hearing, ALJ Froelich found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post anterior cervical disc fusion (ACDF), cervical radiculopathy, fibromyalgia, and major depressive disorder (R. 799). In finding Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments, the ALJ considered whether Plaintiff satisfied the criteria outlined in section 1.02 and 1.04 of Appendix 1 (R. 799). The ALJ also considered the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairment, finding Plaintiff did not satisfy the “paragraph B” criteria as she has only moderate limitations in her activities of daily living and social functioning and has not experienced any episodes of decompensation of extended duration. The ALJ also considered the paragraph C criteria, finding them unmet (R. 800). After carefully considering the entire record, ALJ Froelich found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work except that she requires a 30-minute sit/stand option, must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She must avoid overhead reaching. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extremes of cold, vibration, moving mechanical parts, and unprotected heights. She is limited to simple tasks involving little variation that take a short period (defined as up to and including 30 days) to learn. She can relate adequately to supervisors but is limited to occasional interaction with coworkers and the general public. She is able to deal with changes in a routine work setting. (R. 800).

         In his decision, ALJ Froelich found that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a mail clerk, DOT 209.687-026, light and unskilled (SVP 2) (R. 807). After consulting with a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ further found that Plaintiff can perform other jobs existing in the national economy, including Egg Candler, DOT 529.687-074, light and unskilled (SVP 2) having 11, 027 jobs nationally; and Marker II, DOT 920.687-126, light and unskilled (SVP 2) having 73, 602 jobs nationally (R. 808-809).[2] In his decision, ALJ Froelich stated the VE's testimony is inconsistent with the information contained in the DOT, and explained “there is a reasonable explanation for the discrepancy” (R.809). He stated:

The vocational expert testified that the DOT does not address overhead work or a sit/stand option. The vocational expert testified his opinion was based on thirty years of experience and knowledge of how the duties of these positions have changed over time and knowledge of how these jobs are performed in the regional and national economy. Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, I conclude that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.

(R. 809). Plaintiff again appealed ALJ Froelich's decision to the Appeals Council (AC), but the AC found no reason under its rules to assume jurisdiction, finding the ALJ's decision supported by substantial evidence, and consistent with the applicable laws, regulations, and Social Security Rulings, and in compliance with the court remand (R. 702). Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         B. Standard of Review

         To be entitled to DIB and/or SSI, 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), 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.” See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Social Security Administration, to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated detailed regulations that are currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 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)(4), 416.920(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 her 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 her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of her prior work, the ALJ must decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(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); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. Plaintiff's ...

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