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Cates v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 7, 2017

JUDY BURTON CATES, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          DANIEL C. IRICK UNITES STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Judy Burton Cates (Claimant) appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income. Doc. 1. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by: 1) discounting Claimant's credibility; and 2) failing to give appropriate weight to the opinions of two of Claimant's treating physicians, Dr. Nermeen Saleh (a primary care physician) and Dr. Sunita Tikku (a psychiatrist). Doc. 33 at 20. Claimant requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or, in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 33. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

         This case stems from Claimant's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. R. 40. Claimant alleged a disability onset date of June 30, 2008. Id. On September 20, 2014, the ALJ entered a decision finding that Claimant was capable of performing light work and could perform her past relevant work. R. 45-53. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled. R. 53. As conceded by the Commissioner, Claimant timely pursued her administrative remedies, and this matter is ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(2). Doc. 36 at 1.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION.

         The ALJ issued the operative decision on September 20, 2014. R. 40-53. The ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: joint pain and depression. R. 42. The ALJ also found non-severe impairments of stable gastrointestinal issues and clinically stable polycythemia. Id. The ALJ found that Claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any listed impairment. R. 43-45.

         The ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), [1] with the following specific limitations:

sit, stand, and walk each for eight hours in an eight-hour day; no climbing ropes, ladders or scaffolds; occasional bending, balancing, stooping, squatting, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and climbing of ramps and stairs; no overhead lifting but has full use of upper extremities otherwise; no heights or vibrations; and no production paced demands.

R. 45. The ALJ, in light of this RFC, found that Claimant was able to perform her past relevant work as an office manager (a skilled, sedentary position), because that work does not require the performance of work-related duties precluded by the RFC. R. 52-53. Thus, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled from her alleged onset date, June 30, 2008, through the date of the decision, September 20, 2014. Id.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW.

         “In Social Security appeals, [the court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quotations omitted). The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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, taking into account evidence 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)).

         IV. ANALYSIS.

         1. Credibility

         Claimant argues that the ALJ's reasons supporting her credibility determination are not supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 33 at 20-28. The Commissioner essentially argues that the ALJ's credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence, even if some of the specific reasons stated by the ALJ are incorrect or not supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 36 at 4-8.

         A claimant may establish “disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). A claimant seeking to establish disability through his or her own testimony must show:

(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.

Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002). If the ALJ determines that the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably produce the claimant's alleged pain or other symptoms, the ALJ must then evaluate the extent to which the intensity and persistence of those symptoms limit the claimant's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(1), 416.929(c)(1). In doing so, the ALJ considers a variety of evidence, including, but not limited to, the claimant's history, the medical signs and laboratory findings, the claimant's statements, medical source opinions, and other evidence of how the pain affects the claimant's daily activities and ability to work. Id. at §§ 404.1529(c)(1)-(3), 416.929(c)(1)-(3). “If the ALJ decides not to credit a claimant's testimony as to her pain, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62. “Credibility determinations are the province of the ALJ.” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir.2005). The Court will not disturb a clearly articulated credibility finding that is supported by substantial evidence. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1562.

         The ALJ held a hearing in this case on July 1, 2014. R. 69-110.[2] At the hearing, Claimant testified that she had essentially raised her grandson from his birth in late 2005, with the assistance of her husband (prior to his death in 2011), neighbors, and friends from church. R. 81-82. Claimant also acknowledged that, on her alleged onset date, she was laid off from her prior employment due to a downturn in the economy, and did not leave her employment due to her alleged disability. R. 82-83. Thereafter, Claimant collected unemployment and looked for new work, but was unable to find any. Id. However, Claimant asserted that her depression, anxiety, and joint pain had been increasing prior to her termination, and that she ultimately was unable to work due to her medical issues. R.83-85. Claimant asserted that her medical issues caused her myriad problems and caused her to be unable to complete many activities of daily living without assistance from others, including shopping, cooking, caring for her grandson, and taking care of her house. R. 86-101. Claimant explained that her joint pain and arthritis affected her shoulders, back, knees, and wrists and prevented her from reaching, stooping, crouching, and lifting objects. Id. Further, Claimant stated that her anxiety and depression caused her to have panic attacks and experience extreme stress, and that she also suffered from forgetfulness and from fatigue that required her to take naps each day. Id. In posing questions to the vocational expert, Claimant's attorney included proposed restrictions that Claimant had to take one or two naps (of an hour or more in duration) per day, and also that she had daily panic attacks that lasted anywhere from a half-hour to an hour-and-a-half. R. 104. While the vocational expert found that Claimant could perform her past relevant work (that of an office manager) based on the ALJ's hypothetical, the vocational expert agreed that the additional restrictions suggested by Claimant's counsel would preclude all work. Id.

         In her decision, the ALJ found that Claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, but concluded that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms are “not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.” R. 46. Specifically, the ALJ explained:

Turning to the medical evidence, the objective findings in this case fail to provide strong support for the claimant's allegations of disabling symptoms and limitations. More specifically, the medical findings do not support the existence of limitations greater than the above listed residual functional capacity. In terms of the claimant's alleged conditions, the medical record demonstrates that the doctors have diagnosed the claimant's symptoms as joint pain and depression.

         R. 46. The ALJ also relied on Claimant's activities of daily living, particularly the full-time care she provides to her grandson, in determining Claimant's credibility. R. 46, 51. Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant's allegations concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms “not entirely credible” because the medical evidence does not support those allegations. Id.

         In asserting that the ALJ's credibility determination was not supported by substantial evidence, Claimant made numerous, brief arguments that the ALJ misstated the facts and disregarded the medical evidence supporting Claimant's position. Doc. 33 at 20-28. Specifically, Claimant made the following arguments:

1. The ALJ inaccurately stated that Claimant traveled out of town to care for her octogenarian mother (Doc. 33 at 22, referencing R. 50);
2. The ALJ took into consideration the fact that Claimant collected unemployment and unsuccessfully sought work following the alleged onset date (Id. at ...

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