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Arsenault v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

March 29, 2017




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of an administrative decision denying her applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled on April 24, 2009. (Tr. 416, 420.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on August 24, 2011. (Tr. 118-67.) The Administrative Law Judge found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 171-92.) Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council (Tr. 297) and the Appeals Council remanded the claim in an order dated September 21, 2012 (Tr. 193-97).

         A hearing was held before another Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 3, 2014. (Tr. 90-117.) On June 13, 2014, the ALJ rendered a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 198-221.) Plaintiff again requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. 356-58) and the Appeals Council again remanded the claim in an order dated November 10, 2014 (Tr. 222-27).

         Another hearing was held before the ALJ on June 10, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (Tr. 48-89.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled since April 24, 2009, the alleged onset date, through August 6, 2015, the date of the decision. (Tr. 16-45.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. 7-8), but this time the Appeals Council denied review of the decision (Tr. 1-6).

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled during the relevant time period. Plaintiff has exhausted her available administrative remedies and the case is properly before the Court. The undersigned has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's decision is due to be AFFIRMED.

         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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 district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues the following three general points on appeal: (a) that the ALJ erred in failing to properly weigh the record medical opinions; (b) that the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff's credibility; and (c) that the ALJ failed to pose a proper hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”). (Doc. 19.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in assigning no weight to the Psychiatric/Psychological Impairment Questionnaire (“PIQ”) co-signed by social worker Kathleen Thunberg and Dr. Melinda Randall on August 27, 2010, wherein Ms. Thunberg opined that Plaintiff has various marked limitations, that she is incapable of even low stress jobs, and that she would miss work more than three (3) times per month. (Id. at 15-19; Tr. 83-37.) Similarly, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in giving no weight to opinions of treating nurse practitioner Cheryl Larkawilla and treating physician Howard Offenberg, who rendered similar opinions. Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ omitted moderate restrictions from his hypothetical question posed to the VE. (Id. at 19-25.)

         Defendant responds that the ALJ sufficiently considered and weighed the record medical opinions. Further, Defendant contends that the ALJ provided adequate reasons supported by substantial evidence for discounting Plaintiff's credibility and that the ALJ posed a hypothetical to the VE that encompassed all of Plaintiff's restrictions. (Doc. 23.)

         A. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including fibromyalgia, arthritis, sleep apnea, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and affective disorders. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Id.)

         Continuing on with the evaluation, the ALJ made the following RFC determination:

the undersigned finds that the claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant can sit up to 6 hours per day, without interruption for up to one hours [sic] at a time; the claimant can stand and/or walk up to 2 hours, without interruption for 15 minutes at a time. The claimant can lift up to 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally; no use of the right upper extremity above head level; occasional bending and stooping; no crawling; occasional climbing of stairs; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no crouching; occasional kneeling; use of a simple cane when standing and walking. Additionally, the claimant is limited to semi-skilled work.

(Tr. 24.) In making this finding, the ALJ did not find any support for the PIQ signed by Ms. Thunberg and co-signed by Dr. Randall. The ALJ stated the following in relevant part:

Clearly, [the PIQ] is inconsistent with the findings of Dr. Stephenson, who noted not [sic] significant issues with memory, persistence, or pace. The claimant was noted to be in the average range of intelligence. She had not [sic] problems with interacting with providers (Exhibit 11F). This is also true with more recent progress notes from 2014 through 2015, reflecting no deficits with concentration or memory from providers at Stewart Marchman (Exhibit 64F). In addition, Ms. Thumberg's [sic] opinion is inherently inconsistent with her treatment notes documenting her affect was congruent with her mood. There was no evidence of thought disorder. She was fully oriented and appeared to be of average intelligence with reasonable insight and judgment (Exhibit 32F). In addition, Dr. Verones' assessment found no memory deficits and noted that claimant had obtained a college degree, undermining Ms. Thumberg's [sic] opinions (Exhibit 49F). Ms. Thumberg [sic] also reassessed the claimant's GAF score in a subsequent follow-up appointment to 56, suggesting the claimant's symptoms are not as severe as Ms. Thumberg [sic] purports (Exhibit 52F).

(Tr. 30.) The ALJ further discussed the opinions of Dr. Offenberg, Plaintiff's treating physician, with respect to her physical restrictions. Although the ALJ afforded “some weight” to Dr. Offenberg's opinions regarding certain limitations, the ALJ afforded “no weight” to Dr. Offenberg's opinions regarding “postural limitations and duration for sitting, standing, and walking, ” as the evidence did not support such limitations and his treatment notes did not document any significant limitations on examinations. (Tr. 30-31.) Similarly, the ALJ afforded “no weight” to the opinions of nurse practitioner Cheryl Larkawilla, as her opinions were inconsistent with the evaluations of examining physicians Drs. Stephenson and Verones, were not supported by objective evidence, and were not rendered by an acceptable medical source. (Tr. 31.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause Plaintiff's alleged symptoms, but that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms were not credible for the reasons explained in the decision. (Tr. 25.)

         With the benefit of testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past work as a receptionist. (Tr. 34.) As such, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)

         B. The ALJ's Properly Weighed the Record ...

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