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Blakely v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 7, 2017

SARAH BLAKELY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          GREGORY J. KELLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Sarah Blakely (the “Claimant”), appeals from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), denying her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. Doc. No. 1; R. 1-6. Claimant alleges an onset date of disability of May 31, 2012. R. 197. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) erred by: (1) applying an incorrect legal standard to the opinion of the consultative examining psychologist; (2) formulating a residual functional capacity that conflicts with the opinion of the physical consultative examining medical doctor and not addressing that conflict; and (3) failing to explain a possible conflict between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Doc. No. 14 at 11-13, 17-19, 21-23. For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and these proceedings REMANDED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW.

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla - i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) and Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the District Court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, considering evidence that is favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560. The District Court “‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].'” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         II. ANALYSIS.

         A. Weight Given Consultative Examining Psychologist's Opinion

         Claimant argues that the ALJ erred by giving insufficient reasons for according little weight to the opinion of the consultative examining psychologist, Dr. Baptiste-Boles. Doc. No. 14 at 13. The ALJ stated the following regarding Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion that Claimant's symptoms moderately to severely impact her activities of daily living, vocational performance, and interpersonal interactions: “This opinion deserves limited weight as the claimant had not been entirely truthful regarding the loss of her job and the record on the whole does not support the limitations offered by Dr. Baptiste-Boles.” R. 18. The ALJ did not explain how the record on the whole does not support Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion regarding Claimant's limitations. R. 18.

         Weighing the opinions and findings of treating, examining, and non-examining physicians is an integral part of steps four and five of the ALJ's sequential evaluation process for determining disability.[1] The Eleventh Circuit clarified the standard the Commissioner is required to use when considering medical opinion evidence. In Winschel v. Commissioner of Social Security, the Eleventh Circuit held that whenever a doctor offers a statement reflecting judgments about the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, including symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis, what the claimant can still do despite the impairments, and the claimant's physical and mental restrictions, the statement is an opinion requiring the ALJ to state with particularity the weight given to it and the reasons therefor. 631 F.3d 1176, 1178-79 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2); Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). “‘In the absence of such a statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and supported by substantial evidence.'” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (quoting Cowart v. Schwieker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir. 1981). See also MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (failure to state with particularity the weight given to opinions and the reasons therefor constitutes reversible error); Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (failure to clearly articulate reasons for giving less weight to the treating physician's opinion constitutes reversible error).

         Here, the ALJ assigned Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight for two reasons: first, because “the claimant had not been entirely truthful regarding the loss of her job[, ]” and second, because “the record on the whole does not support the limitations offered by Dr. Baptiste-Boles.” R. 18.

         Dr. Baptiste-Boles's report stated that Claimant said that her Burger King job ended due to her physical limitations, R. 379, which is contrary to Claimant's testimony in the hearing that she lost her job because she stole twenty dollars, R. 41. Dr. Baptiste-Boles states in her opinion that Claimant was the sole informant, and she described the information that Claimant gave her as “appear[ing] reliable and accurate.” R. 377. Claimant's testimony at the hearing, however, demonstrates that at least part of the information she gave to Dr. Baptiste-Boles was not reliable and accurate. Thus, the ALJ's reason for assigning Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight because Claimant appears to have lied to the doctor about why she no longer works at Burger King is supported by competent substantial evidence.

         The second reason the ALJ gave for discounting Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion is that “the record on the whole does not support the limitations offered by Dr. Baptiste-Boles.” R. 18. Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion discussed mental limitations, R. 380, and the ALJ did not identify conflicting evidence regarding mental limitations. R. 18. Instead, the ALJ then proceeded to discuss Dr. Barber's physical consultative examination. R. 19. The ALJ failed to explain how the record on the whole does not support Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion, and this conclusory statement is not sufficient to support giving Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight. Poplardo v. Astrue, No. 3:06-cv-1101-J-MCR, 2008 WL 68593 at *11 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 4, 2008) (failure to specifically articulate evidence contrary to treating doctor's opinion requires remand); Paltan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 6:07-cv-932-Orl-19DAB, 2008 WL 1848342 at *5 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 22, 2008) (“The ALJ's failure to explain how [the treating doctor's] opinion was ‘inconsistent with the medical evidence' renders review impossible and remand is required.”). The Eleventh Circuit has stated that an ALJ's failure to “provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         The Commissioner argues that the ALJ need not give good reasons for the weight he assigns examining, but not treating, doctors' opinions. Doc. No. 14 at 14. The Commissioner relies on Denomme v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration, 518 F.App'x 875, 878 (11th Cir. 2013), Doc. No. 14 at 14, but in that case, the ALJ did not discredit nor explicitly indicate the weight that he afforded the examining doctors' reports. Here, the ALJ specifically assigned Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight. R. 18.

         Although the ALJ's second reason for according Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight was not adequately articulated to support that determination, that error is harmless because, as discussed above, the ALJ's first reason is adequately supported by the record. There is substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision to give Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight due to the doctor's reliance on information that Claimant provided, and therefore it is recommended that the Court reject Claimant's argument that the ALJ gave insufficient reasons for assigning Dr. Baptiste-Boles's opinion little weight. D'Andrea v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 389 F. App'x 944, 948 (11th Cir. 2010) (rejecting the claimant's argument “that the ALJ erred in failing to accord appropriate weight to the opinion of her treating physician . . . because the ALJ articulated at least one specific reason for disregarding the opinion and the record supports it.”).[2]

         B. The ...


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