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Christian v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 13, 2017

LAURA CHRISTINE CHRISTIAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          MONTE C. RICHARDSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

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 (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on January 6, 2012. (Tr. 18, 38, 265.) A hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 25, 2014, at which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (Tr. 36-62.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from January 6, 2012 through October 20, 2014, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 18-29.)

         In reaching the decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: disorders of the spine; an affective mood disorder; an anxiety-related disorder; headaches; and hypertension.” (Tr. 20.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “light or sedentary work” with additional restrictions. (Tr. 22.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from January 6, 2012 through October 20, 2014. 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 Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         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 raises three issues on appeal. First, Plaintiff argues that although the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinions of the State agency non-examining physicians (Dr. Sunita Patel and Dr. Linda O'Neil), he failed to incorporate some of their limitations in the RFC assessment and failed to explain why he rejected these limitations. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Atul Shah's treating opinions, while giving significant weight to Dr. O'Neil's non-examining opinions, in assessing Plaintiff's RFC. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly relied on the testimony of the Vocational Expert (“VE”) because it was based on an incomplete hypothetical question. Defendant responds that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinions of record, and his RFC assessment and hypothetical question to the VE are supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Standard for Evaluating Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ is required to consider all the evidence in the record when making a disability determination. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(3), 416.920(a)(3). With regard to medical opinion evidence, “the ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). Substantial weight must be given to a treating physician's opinion unless there is good cause to do otherwise. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).

         “‘[G]ood cause' exists when the: (1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). When a treating physician's opinion does not warrant controlling weight, the ALJ must nevertheless weigh the medical opinion based on: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) the medical evidence supporting the opinion, (4) consistency of the medical opinion with the record as a whole, (5) specialization in the medical issues at issue, and (6) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(6), 416.927(c)(2)-(6).

         Although a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than a consulting physician's opinion, see Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 518 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2), “[t]he opinions of state agency physicians” can outweigh the contrary opinion of a treating physician if “that opinion has been properly discounted, ” Cooper v. Astrue, 2008 WL 649244, *3 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 10, 2008). Further, “the ALJ may reject any medical opinion if the evidence supports a contrary finding.” Wainwright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 2007 WL 708971, *2 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2007) (per curium). See also Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam) (same).

         “The ALJ is required to consider the opinions of non-examining state agency medical and psychological consultants because they ‘are highly qualified physicians and psychologists, who are also experts in Social Security disability evaluation.'” Milner v. Barnhart, 275 F. App'x 947, 948 (11th Cir. May 2, 2008) (per curiam). See also SSR 96-6p (stating that the ALJ must treat the findings of State agency medical consultants as expert opinion evidence of non-examining sources). While the ALJ is not bound by the findings of non-examining physicians, the ALJ may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to them in his decision. SSR 96-6p.

         B. The ...


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