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Beighley v. Berryhill

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

September 5, 2017

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

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]

          JAMES R. KLINDT United States Magistrate Judge.

I. Status

         Erin Rae Beighley (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is the result of psoriatic arthritis, scoliosis, fibromyalgia, spondylitis, degenerative disc disease, bipolar disorder, and “severe back pain.” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 12; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed October 4, 2016, at 49, 60, 73, 84, 229 (emphasis omitted). On November 2, 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset of disability date of June 10, 2010. Tr. at 49 (DIB), 60 (SSI). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, Tr. at 49-59, 72, 97-102 (DIB); Tr. at 60-70, 71, 103-09 (SSI), and on reconsideration, Tr. at 73-83, 95, 113-18 (DIB); Tr. at 84-94, 96, 119-24 (SSI).

         On October 10, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing at which the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 24-48. On October 24, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled through the date of the decision. Tr. at 16-22. On December 16, 2013, the Appeals Council (“AC”) sent Plaintiff a letter notifying Plaintiff that the AC was reviewing the ALJ's decision because “[it] found that the [D]ecision is not supported by substantial evidence.” Tr. at 172; see Tr. 172-78. The letter advised Plaintiff that the AC planned to issue a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. at 173.

         On April 22, 2014, the AC reversed the ALJ's finding that the Plaintiff was disabled and issued a decision that became the final decision of the Commissioner.[3] Tr. at 4-9. Plaintiff timely appealed the AC's decision to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.[4] On December 8, 2015, the Court reversed and remanded the decision to the Commissioner. Tr. at 532-39. On April 25, 2016, on remand, the AC again found Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the ALJ's original decision, and issued a Decision that became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. at 521-28. On June 28, 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.

         Plaintiff raises two issues on appeal: (1) “[w]hether the Commissioner erred in determining that [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity [(“RFC”)] to perform light work after providing more weight to the opinions of non-examining state agency physicians than any examining or treating physician, and failing to adequately consider all of the pertinent evidence in the record”; and (2) “[w]hether the Commissioner erred in determining that [Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work after failing to adequately assess [Plaintiff's] credibility when she suffered from pain caused from psoriatic arthritis and a back condition.” Plaintiff's Brief Addressing the Merits of Appeal (Doc. No. 17; “Pl.'s Brief”), filed December 5, 2016, at 2-3, 11-21 (argument as to first issue), 22-25 (argument as to second issue). On January 31, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 19; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing the issues raised by Plaintiff. After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective filings, the undersigned finds the Commissioner's final decision is due to be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         II. The AC's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [5] an ALJ, or the AC, 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, on remand, the AC followed the five-step sequential inquiry in the Decision. See Tr. at 526-28. At step one, the AC determined that “[Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 10, 2010 [(the alleged onset date)].” Tr. at 527 (citations omitted). At step two, the AC found that “[Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: psoriatic arthritis, tuberculosis, disorders of the spine, fibromyalgia, and obesity.” Tr. at 527 (citations omitted). At step three, the AC ascertained that “[Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments which is listed in, or which is medically equal to an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 527 (citation omitted).

         The AC determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC: “[Plaintiff can] perform the full range of the work at the light exertional level.” Tr. at 527 (citation omitted). At step four, the AC found “[Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work because the physical demands of those jobs exceeded [Plaintiff's RFC] for a full range of light work.” Tr. at 527 (citations omitted).

         At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“32 years old, which is defined as a younger individual”), education (“a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] could perform during the period at issue.” Tr. at 527-28 (citations omitted). The AC concluded that “[Plaintiff was] not disabled . . . at any time from her alleged onset date, June 10, 2010, through the date of the [ALJ's] decision . . . .” Tr. at 528.

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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) (citation 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

         As indicated above, Plaintiff raises two issues before this Court. The first concerns the AC's assessment of the medical opinions, and the second concerns the AC's basis for the credibility finding. See Pl.'s Brief at 11-25. Two observations are critical in addressing these issues. First, the ALJ's decision reflects that the ALJ's finding of disability was mostly based on Plaintiff's “limited range of daily activities, ” and Plaintiff's inability to take Enbrel (a medication that helps relieve Plaintiff's pain) due to its incompatibility with her tuberculosis medication. See Tr. at 20. Second, in disagreeing with the ALJ's decision, the AC partly relied on Plaintiff's ability to perform certain activities of daily living but, in doing so, failed to consider the record as a whole, including activities Plaintiff is unable to perform and the fact that Plaintiff stopped taking Enbrel. See Tr. at 524-25. This affected both the AC's credibility determination and the AC's assessment of the medical opinions.

         In addressing the issues in detail, the undersigned first sets out the applicable law. Then, the undersigned discusses the AC's credibility determination, followed by the AC's assessment of the medical opinions.

         A. Applicable Law

         To establish a disability based on testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms, a claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of any underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged subjective symptoms; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed subjective symptoms. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991) (stating that “the standard also applies to complaints of subjective symptoms other than pain”)). “The claimant's subjective testimony supported by medical evidence that satisfies the standard is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223.

         “[C]redibility determinations are the province of the [administrative judge].” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005). The administrative judge “must articulate explicit and adequate reasons” for finding a claimant “not credible.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225. “When evaluating a claimant's subjective symptoms, the [administrative judge] must consider things such as (1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the nature, location, onset, duration, frequency, radiation, and intensity of pain and other symptoms; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) adverse side effects of medications; and (5) treatment or measures taken by the claimant for relief of symptoms.” Davis v. Astrue, 287 F. App'x 748, 760 (11th Cir. 2008) (unpublished) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)(i)-(vi)). After considering the claimant's subjective complaints, “the ...

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