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Workman v. Berryhill

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

August 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]

          JAMES R. KLINDT United States Magistrate Judge.

I. Status

         Frank Merriett Workman (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's final decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of “Bells [sic] palsy” and “heart problems.” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 11; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed November 16, 2016, at 99, 108, 119, 128, 262 (emphasis omitted). On October 5, 2012 Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset disability date of September 15, 2010. Tr. at 108-16 (DIB), 99-107 (SSI). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, see Tr. at 108-16, 117, 143-48 (DIB); Tr. at 99- 107, 118, 149-56 (SSI), and were denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 119-27, 137, 156-61 (DIB); Tr. at 128-36, 138, 162-67 (SSI).

         On January 23, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which the ALJ heard from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 42-98. The ALJ issued a Decision on March 23, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 26-37.

         The Appeals Council then received additional evidence consisting of medical records from St. Vincent's Medical Center. Tr. at 6; see Tr. at 7-8 (records). On July 8, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-4, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 6, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes two arguments: 1) “the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinions of the treating physician[s] and other medical sources in this case[, ]” and 2) “the ALJ's medium [residual functional capacity (“RFC”)] was not supported by substantial evidence.” Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law (Doc. No. 16; “Pl.'s Mem.”), filed January 9, 2017, at 10 (first argument) (emphasis and some capitalization omitted), 16 (second argument) (emphasis and some capitalization omitted). On March 20, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 17; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's arguments. After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be affirmed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [3] an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (“Regulations”), determining as appropriate whether the claimant (1) is currently employed or engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in the Regulations; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 28-37. A t s t e p o n e, the ALJ determined that “[Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2010, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 28 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that “[Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: history of trochanteric bursitis, history of meralgia paresthetica with neuropathic pain, disorders of the spine, history of migraine, cerebrovascular accident and right bell's palsy per history, restless leg syndrome.” Tr. at 28 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ ascertained that “[Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 29 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR [§§] 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; no more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs or balancing; no more than frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; must avoid even moderate exposure to moving machinery; must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights; and no more than a moderate noise intensity level as that term is described in the [Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”)], due to a history of migraines.

Tr. at 29 (emphasis omitted). At step four, the ALJ found that “[Plaintiff] is capable of performing past relevant work as a currency counter, computer operator, and computer programmer . . . .” Tr. at 35 (emphasis omitted). The ALJ then proceeded to make alternative findings regarding the fifth and final step of the sequential inquiry. Tr. at 36-37. At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“47 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ again relied on the testimony of the VE and found “there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] also can perform, ” including “hospital cleaner, ” “dining room attendant, ” and “hospital food service worker.” Tr. at 36-37. The ALJ concluded that “[Plaintiff] has not been under a disability . . . from September 15, 2010, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 37 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Although no deference is given to the ALJ's conclusions of law, findings of fact “are conclusive if . . . supported by ‘substantial evidence' . . . .” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). “Substantial evidence is something ‘more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987)). The substantial evidence standard is met when there is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Falge, 150 F.3d at 1322 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence; rather, the entire record is reviewed to determine whether “the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991) (internal quotation and citations omitted); see also McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         The undersigned first sets out the applicable law. Then, the issues raised by Plaintiff are addressed in turn.

         A. General Law

         The Regulations establish a “hierarchy” among medical opinions[4] that provides a framework for determining the weight afforded each medical opinion: “[g]enerally, the opinions of examining physicians are given more weight than those of non-examining physicians[;] treating physicians[' opinions] are given more weight than [non-treating physicians;] and the opinions of specialists are given more weight on issues within the area of expertise than those of non-specialists.” McNamee v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 164 F. App'x 919, 923 (11th Cir. 2006) (unpublished) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1), (2), (5)). The following factors are relevant in determining the weight to be given to a physician's opinion: (1) the “[l]ength of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination”; (2) the “[n]ature and extent of [any] treatment relationship”; (3) ...

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