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Ahmetovic v. Berryhill

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

September 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          JAMES D. WHITTEMORE, United States District Judge

         BEFORE THE COURT is the Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge (Dkt. 23), recommending that the Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiffs claim for disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income be reversed. Defendant filed objections (Dkt. 24), to which Plaintiff responded (Dkt. 25). A district court may accept, reject, or modify a magistrate judge's report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Those portions of the report and recommendation to which objection is made are accorded de novo review. Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         After a de novo review of the findings to which objections are made, and a review of the findings to which objection is not made for plain error, I find that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and the case remanded based on the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") failure to state the weight given to the opinion of Plaintiff s treating physician and failure to adequately articulate the reason for discrediting Plaintiffs testimony.


         Defendant makes two objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation: (1) the finding that the ALJ erred in his consideration of the opinion of Plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Patel; and (2) the finding that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Plaintiff s credibility.

         II. STANDARD

         An administrative law judge's decision is reviewed to determine whether the correct legal standards were applied, Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam), and if the decision as a whole is supported by substantial evidence, Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec, 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Legal conclusions of the administrative law judge, however, are reviewed de novo. Ingram v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec, 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007).


         There is a five-step, sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citing Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004)). The first three steps evaluate whether (1) the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, and (3) the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments. Id. The fourth step asks whether, based on the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment, the claimant can perform any of her past relevant work despite the limitations caused by her impairments. Id. At the fourth step, the administrative law judge considers "all the relevant medical and other evidence" in the case record to determine the claimant's RFC. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)). The claimant bears the burden of establishing that she cannot perform her past relevant work based on her RFC. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). If the claimant establishes that she cannot perform her past relevant work, the burden shifts to the administrative law judge at the fifth step to determine whether there are significant numbers of other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform, given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178; Jones, 190 F.3d at 1228.

         The ALJ determined, as to steps one through three, that Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity and she has severe impairments including "hypertension, anthropathies, lesion in the paramedian right frontal lobe, anxiety disorder, and affective mood disorder, " but her impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of listed impairments (Decision, Tr. 60). The ALJ further concluded at step four that she has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work, limited to occasional stooping, handling and fingering bilaterally frequently, and performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. (Tr. 61). Based on Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and testimony of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 63-65). The Magistrate Judge recommended, after a thorough review of the ALJ's findings and conclusions, that the decision of the ALJ be reversed because (1) the ALJ failed to state the weight given to Plaintiffs treating physician, which was inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC assessment and (2) the ALJ did not articulate adequate reasons for discrediting Plaintiffs statements about her pain. (Report and Recommendation, Dkt. 23).

         A. The ALJ's Findings Relating to Dr. Patel, Plaintiff's Treating Physician

         Defendant objects to the Magistrate's conclusion that the ALJ's failure to state the weight given to the opinion of Dr. Patel, Plaintiffs treating physician, was not harmless. Acknowledging that the ALJ did not state what weight she gave to Dr. Patel's opinion, Defendant argues that the ALJ properly considered Dr. Patel's opinion and must have given it little or no weight, because assigning little or no weight would be supported by substantial evidence. (See Dkt. 19 at 6).[1]

         An ALJ must "state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions, and the reasons therefore." Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. The opinion of a treating physician "must be given substantial or considerable weight unless 'good cause' is shown to the contrary." Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997); see also Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986) ("[A]bsent 'good cause, ' the opinion of a claimant's treating physician must be accorded 'substantial' weight.").

         " '[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, 357 F.3d at 1241. "With good cause, an ALJ may disregard a treating physician's opinion, but he 'must clearly articulate [the] reasons' for doing so." Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (quoting Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240-41). The ALJ " 'must specify what weight is given to a treating physician's opinion and any reason for giving it no weight, and failure to do so ...

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