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Eubanks v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 13, 2017




         Stephen Eubanks (Claimant) appeals from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying his application for supplemental security income. Docs. 1; 18 at 1; R 17. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the ALJ) erred by: 1) failing to properly weigh the opinion of Claimant's treating psychiatrist; 2) failing to properly characterize Claimant's visual limitations; and 3) posing a hypothetical question to the vocational expert that, allegedly, did not adequately reflect Claimant's limitations. Doc. 18 at 2. Claimant argues that the matter should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or, in the alternative, for further proceedings. Id. at 19-20. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.


         On October 10, 2013, Claimant protectively filed an application for supplemental security income. R. 17. Claimant alleged a disability onset date of September 20, 2013. Id. The ALJ issued his decision on March 25, 2015. R. 17-28. The ALJ found that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: scoliosis, a left eye impairment, and a bi-polar disorder. R. 19. The ALJ found that Claimant had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than a full range of medium work[1] as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416. 967(c), with following additional limitations:

[H]e can only occasionally perform tasks requiring far visual acuity. He can perform only work involving simple tasks and following simple instructions in an isolated environment, where he would seldom (defined as less than 1/3 of the work day) have contact with supervisors, co-workers and the public.

R. 21. In light of this RFC, the ALJ found Claimant was capable of performing various jobs in the national economy - Claimant had no past relevant work. R. 26-27. In light of the foregoing, the ALJ found that Claimant has not been disabled since his alleged onset date, October 10, 2013. R.


         “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)).

         III. ANALYSIS.

         Claimant maintains that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Earl Taitt, M.D., primarily because the treatment notes from Dr. Taitt were illegible. Doc. 18 at 7-14. Claimant asserts that it is impossible to determine “how or even whether” Dr. Taitt's records were considered, or what his opinions were. Id. Therefore, Claimant argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         The Commissioner's position is that the opinions of Dr. Taitt were discussed and considered by the ALJ, and that Claimant's “argument that the illegibility of Dr. Taitt's treatment notes prevented the ALJ from fully considering them is no more than mere speculation” and, thus, “is unavailing.” Doc. 20 at 9. While the Commissioner notes that the ALJ never stated that Dr. Taitt's notes were illegible or difficult to read, the Commissioner does not actually assert that Dr. Taitt's notes are legible.

         At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and ability to perform past relevant work. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238. The RFC “is an assessment, based upon all of the relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The ALJ is responsible for determining the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.946(c). In doing so, the ALJ must consider all relevant evidence, including, but not limited to, the medical opinions of treating, examining and non-examining medical sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3); see also Rosario v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 490 F. App'x 192, 194 (11th Cir. 2012).[2]

         The ALJ must consider a number of factors in determining how much weight to give each medical opinion, including: 1) whether the physician has examined the claimant; 2) the length, nature, and extent of the physician's relationship with the claimant; 3) the medical evidence and explanation supporting the physician's opinion; 4) how consistent the physician's opinion is with the record as a whole; and 5) the physician's specialization. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c).

         A treating physician's opinion must be given substantial or considerable weight, unless good cause is shown to the contrary. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2) (giving controlling weight to the treating physician's opinion unless it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence); see also Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. There is good cause to assign a treating physician's opinion less than substantial or considerable weight, where: 1) the treating physician's opinion is not bolstered by the evidence; 2) the evidence supports a contrary ...

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