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Hart v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 16, 2019

KRISTEN HART, Plaintiff,


          MARK A. P1ZZO JUDGE

         This is an appeal of the administrative denial of supplemental security income (SSI).[1] See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Plaintiff argues the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) should have found that her digestive disorder and accompanying weight loss met or equaled medical listing 5.08. After considering Plaintiff's arguments, Defendant's response, and the administrative record, I find the ALJ applied the proper standards, and the decision that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence. I affirm the ALJ's decision.

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Kristen Hart was born on September 13, 1968, and was 49 years old at the time of the administrative hearing. Plaintiff has earned a GED and some community college credits. She lived with her ailing parents until they passed away; by the hearing date, Plaintiff had moved in with her adult son. Plaintiff has past work experience as an office clerk for a home builder, a medical biller and coder for a dentist, and a receptionist at a gym. Plaintiff alleges disability due to colitis, sciatica, and mental impairments.

         This is Plaintiff's second application for benefits. Initially, she applied for SSI and disability insurance benefits (DIB), alleging disability beginning February 15, 2008. The same ALJ assigned to the current appeal denied Plaintiff's first application on December 13, 2013 (the Appeals Council upheld this decision). Consequently, the parties concede that for the time period of February 15, 2008 (her first alleged onset date), through December 13, 2013 (the date of the ALJ's unfavorable decision), the ALJ's denial “became administratively final under the doctrine of res judicata through the latter date.” (R. 22) Nonetheless, in Plaintiff's current application (her second), she requests SSI and DIB, this time alleging disability as of August 25, 2012.

         Against this procedural backdrop, the ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's second DIB application, because Plaintiff's date of last insured was September 30, 2013, and the denial of her first claim was administratively final through December 13, 2013. What remained for the ALJ to determine in this case is whether Plaintiff was disabled, and therefore entitled to SSI, from December 14, 2015 (the date she filed her second application), through March 7, 2018 (the date of the ALJ's denial of her second application).

         After a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of “status-post remote cervical spine anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF); pre-existing lumbar spine disc bulge and protrusions with annular tear at ¶ 4-5 level and minor nerve root involvement, and mild to moderate stenosis; and combined mild major depression with anxiety and mood disorder.” (R. 25) Aided by the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined Plaintiff is not disabled, despite these impairments, as she retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with some limitations:

No more than occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; occasional climbing ladders, but never climbing scaffolds, ropes or at open unprotected heights; must avoid extreme vibrations; reaching with upper extremities is limited to frequent (between one-third and two-thirds of time during an eight-hour workday); must avoid operation of dangerous machinery; limited to understanding and carrying-out simple, routine, repetitive tasks (meaning tasks that will be learned from a short demonstration or doing the same task for up to 30 days, limited to making basic decision and adjusting to simple changes in the work setting); no more than frequent interaction with the general public, coworkers and supervisors.

(R. 27-28) The ALJ found that, with this RFC, Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work but could work as a housekeeper/cleaner, advertising materials distributor, and a produce sorter. (R. 32) The Appeals Council denied review. Plaintiff, having exhausted her administrative remedies, filed this action.

         B. Standard of Review

         To be entitled to 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. ...

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