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Kelley v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

December 17, 2019

PAMELA J. KELLEY, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.



         This case has been referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for disposition pursuant to the authority of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, based on the parties' consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction (see ECF Nos. 10, 11). It is now before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §' 401-34.

         Upon review of the record before this court, it is the opinion of the undersigned that the findings of fact and determinations of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence; thus, the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.


         On May 26, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB alleging disability beginning four days prior, on May 22, 2015 (tr. 10).[2] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and thereafter she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on March 9, 2017, and on June 22, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff “not disabled, ” as defined under the Act, at any time through the date of the decision (tr. 10-19). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request (tr. 1-6). Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, subject to review in this court. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). This appeal followed.


         In denying Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ made the following relevant findings:

(1) Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2019[3];
(2) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity after May 22, 2015, the alleged onset date;
(3) Plaintiff has one severe impairment: degenerative disc disease in the form of lumbar spondylosis with myelopathy;
(4) Plaintiff has no impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 440, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
(5) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.' 404.1567(b); and (6) Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a daycare teacher during the relevant period, as the requirements of that work are consistent with her RFC; therefore, she was not under a disability, as defined in the Act, from May 22, 2015, through June 22, 2017, the date of the decision.

(tr. 10-19).


         Review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and was a result of application of proper legal standards. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991) (“[T]his Court may reverse the decision of the [Commissioner] only when convinced that it is not supported by substantial evidence or that proper legal standards were not applied.”); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). “A determination that is supported by substantial evidence may be meaningless . . . if it is coupled with or derived from faulty legal principles.” Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1991). As long as proper legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision will not be disturbed if, in light of the record as a whole, the decision appears to be supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439; Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but not a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 217 (1938)); Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1439. The court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The Act defines a disability as an “inability 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To qualify as a disability, the physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the claimant not only is unable to do her previous work, “but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. at' 423(d)(2)(A). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R.' 404.1520(a)-(g), the Commissioner analyzes a disability claim in five steps:

1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, her impairments must be severe before she can be found disabled.
3. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity and she has severe impairments that have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and if her impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
4. If the claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled.
5. Even if the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her RFC and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

         The claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that keeps her from performing past work. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1512. If the claimant establishes such an impairment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the existence of other jobs in the national economy which, given the claimant's impairments, the claimant can perform. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1052 (11th Cir. 1986). If the Commissioner carries this burden, the claimant must then prove she cannot perform the work identified by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).


         A. Personal and Employment History

         At the time of the hearing before the ALJ on March 9, 2017, Plaintiff was 56 years of age, stood 5'6'' tall, and weighed 180 pounds (tr. 60, 62). She testified she had a high school education and previous work as a teacher at a childcare center where she cared for children aged four to twelve (tr. 60, 64).[4]

         Plaintiff noted she can drive, bathe, and dress herself with some assistance; shop for groceries; and cook in increments; but she cannot do laundry, sweep, mop, or perform yard work (tr. 64-66). She testified she can stand for only ten minutes, has pain when she walks two blocks, and is limited in what she can carry (tr. 66, 71). She takes cyclobenzaprine, Duloxetine, oxycodone, and Aleve for her back (tr. 63, 312). Although these medications are helpful, they only decrease her pain from a ten to a seven or eight on a ten-point scale, ...

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