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Whitmore v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 31, 2019




         This is an appeal of the administrative denial of supplemental security income benefits (SSI), disability insurance benefits (DIB), and period of disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). In her appeal, Plaintiff asserts the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by failing to find her fibromyalgia a severe impairment; by failing to find that she has work limitations caused by her mental problems; and by failing to find her dental problems a severe impairment. After considering Plaintiff's arguments, Defendant's response, and the administrative record, I find the ALJ applied the proper standards and her decision is supported by substantial evidence. I affirm the ALJ's decision.

         A. Background

         Plaintiff, born on July 24, 1965, was 55 years old at the time of the November 8, 2017 administrative hearing.[1] She completed two years of college, and has work experience as an office helper and a general office clerk (R. 40-42). She stopped working in March 2013 because it became too difficult both mentally and physically for her to perform the duties of her job (R. 43). In her application, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning March 1, 2013, due to bipolar, depression, fibromyalgia, neck problems, osteoporosis, arthritis, and severe anxiety (R. 118). Her date late insured (DLI) is December 31, 2018. After a hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of spine disorder, dysfunction of major joint knee and right shoulder, and suprapatellar bursitis of the right knee (R. 13). But, aided by the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined Plaintiff is not disabled as she has the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work, including her past relevant work as an office helper and general clerk (R. 19). Plaintiff appealed the decision, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (R. 1). Plaintiff, who has exhausted her administrative remedies, 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. fibromyalgia

         In the main, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred at step two by failing to find that her fibromyalgia is a severe impairment. Step two is a threshold inquiry. The Eleventh Circuit has held that “a claimant's impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience.” McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1031 (11th Cir. 1986); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1521(a), 416.921(a) (“An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.”). But, Plaintiff's emphasis on step two is misguided. Step two requires only that the ALJ determine whether Plaintiff suffers from at least one severe impairment. See Jamison v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 585, 588 (11th Cir. 1987) (holding “the finding of any severe impairment . . . whether or not it results from a single severe impairment or a combination of impairments that together qualify as severe” is enough to satisfy step two). “Nothing requires that the ALJ must identify, at step two, all of the impairments that should be considered severe.” Heatly v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 382 Fed. App'x 823, 825 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         Here, the ALJ found three severe impairments, spine disorder; dysfunction of major joint knee and right shoulder; and suprapatellar bursitis of the right knee (R. 13), satisfying the step two inquiry. In reaching this finding, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's other alleged impairments. The ALJ explained:

The claimant testified that she suffered from fibromyalgia. Social Security Ruling 12-2p provides fibromyalgia may be found to be a medically determinable impairment if there is documented evidence consistent with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Generally, the claimant must meet one of two tests, both of which include widespread pain in all quadrants of the body and axial skeletal pain that persisted for at least three months and exclusion of other possible diagnosis. In the instant case, there is no documented evidence that supports fibromyalgia as a medically determinable impairment (see i.e. Exhibit 15F). Therefore, I find fibromyalgia is not established as a medically determinable impairment.

(R. 14). After her step two discussion, the ALJ progressed to the remainder of the five-step disability determination process as required. At step three she considered Plaintiff's fibromyalgia as required (R. 16-17). Hence, I cannot conclude the ALJ erred at step two by ...

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