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Figueroa v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 25, 2017


          ORDER [1]

          THOMAS B. SMITH, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income under the Act. Upon a review of the record and after due consideration, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed for benefits on September 3, 2014, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2013 (Tr. 25, 211-218). She claimed that she was disabled due to fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal pain from degenerative disc disease and cervical disc disease, depression and anxiety disorder (Tr. 46, 256, 287).

         Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 124, 128, 134, 140, 43-64). In a decision dated March 4, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the decision (Tr. 22-42). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 6, 2016 (Tr.1-6). Accordingly, the ALJ's March 4, 2016 decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted the available administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review (Doc. 1). The matter is fully briefed and ripe for resolution.

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration and set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1240 (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); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 n.10.

         Here, the ALJ performed the required five-step sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her January 1, 2013 alleged disability onset date (Tr. 27). The ALJ found at step two that Plaintiff's severe impairments included degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, and fibromyalgia (Tr. 28). He found that other impairments, including depression and anxiety, were not severe impairments (Tr. 28-31). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 31). Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with certain additional limitations. Specifically, the claimant can lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit, stand and walk for up to 6 hours each out of an 8-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ladders and scaffolds, and frequently climb ramps or stairs, as well [as] frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She can have occasional exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, vibration, and hazards, such as unprotected heights and moving machinery.

(Tr. 31-32).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to return to her past relevant work as a stock clerk and cashier, but, relying on the testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found, at step five, that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform (Tr. 35) and, therefore, found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 36).

         Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). Findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted).

         When 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 preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The district court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner.]” Id. "The district court must view the record 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) (per curiam); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings).


         Plaintiff urges reversal of the Commissioner's decision, contending that the ALJ failed to weigh the opinions of three treating physicians, failed to mention or weigh the opinions of the consultative mental examiners, and improperly gave great weight to the opinions of non-examining physicians. Plaintiff also claims that the Commissioner's findings regarding her mental impairments are not properly supported.

         Evaluation of Medical Opinions

         The Eleventh Circuit has held that whenever a physician offers a statement reflecting judgments about the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, including symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis, what the claimant can still do despite his or her impairments, and the claimant's physical and mental restrictions, the statement is an opinion requiring the ALJ to state with particularity the weight given to it and the reasons therefor. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178-79 (citing 20 CRF §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2); Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987).) When evaluating a physician's opinion, an ALJ considers numerous factors, including whether the physician examined the claimant, whether the physician treated the claimant, the evidence the physician presents to support his or her opinion, whether the physician's opinion is consistent with the record as a whole, and the physician's specialty. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c).

         Substantial weight must be given to the opinion, diagnosis and medical evidence of a treating physician unless there is good cause to do otherwise. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436 (11th Cir. 1997); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583 (11th Cir. 1991); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). Good cause for disregarding an opinion can exist when: (1) the opinion is not bolstered by the evidence; (2) the evidence supports a contrary finding; or (3) the opinion is conclusory or is inconsistent with the source's own treatment notes. Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440.

         By contrast, a consultative examiner's opinion is not entitled to the deference normally given a treating source. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) (2); Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1161. Nonetheless, all opinions, including those of non-treating state agency or other program examiners or consultants, are to be considered and evaluated by the ALJ. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927, and Winschel.

         Dr. Beltre

         On November 14, 2012, prior to her alleged onset, Plaintiff started seeing Dr. Magdalena Beltre (Tr. 481). On examination, Dr. Beltre noted tenderness in Plaintiff's lower back, upper back, mid central back and over her spine. The doctor diagnosed Plaintiff with hypothyroidism, essential HTN, [3] and lumbago, and referred her to an orthopedist (Id.). On return visit on January 10, 2013, Plaintiff presented with complaints of depression and pain (Tr. 479). On exam, Plaintiff had adequate mood and affect, normal gait, symmetrical power and sensation, and demonstrated a full range of motion. The doctor's assessment was myofascial syndrome (myalgia unspecified) and major depressive disorder. He recommended that Ms. Figueroa see a rheumatologist for further evaluation of her arthralgias (Id.).

         On February 21, 2013, Plaintiff saw Dr. Beltre for a regular follow-up. She complained about anxiety and back pain. Dr. Beltre diagnosed HTN, myofascial syndrome and depression/anxiety. Plaintiff's musculoskeletal exam revealed full range of motion, no swelling or tenderness, and her neurological exam showed Plaintiff was fully oriented and had adequate mood and affect, with normal gait, symmetrical power, and sensation (Tr. 478).

         On December 12, 2013, Plaintiff returned, complaining of muscle pain and back pain (Tr. 477). Dr. Beltre noted shoulder and lower back tenderness. The ...

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