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Woodard v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida

November 9, 2017

ADAM WOODARD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          GREGORY J. KELLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Adam Woodard (the “Claimant”) appeals to the District Court a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Doc. No. 1. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) committed reversible error by applying improper legal standards to the medical opinions of Drs. Michael L. Zelkowitz and James Hunt. Doc. No. 17 at 11-20. Claimant requests that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 25. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On February 27, 2013, Claimant filed his SSI application. R. 230. Claimant alleges a disability onset date of May 15, 2012. Id. On April 18, 2013, Claimant's application was denied initially. R. 152. On May 23, 2013, Claimant's application was denied upon reconsideration. R. 161. On June 27, 2013, Claimant filed a request for hearing. R. 167. On April 13, 2015, Claimant attended a hearing before the ALJ. R. 41-94. On May 8, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 21-34. On June 29, 2015, Claimant requested review of the ALJ's decision. R. 12-17. On October 28, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request. R. 1-5. On December 21, 2016, Claimant filed his appeal. Doc. No. 1.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security regulations delineate a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). 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) (citations and quotations omitted).

         III. WEIGHING MEDICAL OPINIONS

         Weighing the opinions and findings of treating, examining, and non-examining physicians is an integral part in determining whether a claimant is disabled. In cases involving an ALJ's handling of medical opinions, “substantial-evidence review . . . involves some intricacy.” Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 931 (11th Cir. 2013).[1] In Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176 (11th Cir. 2011), the Eleventh Circuit 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 or cannot do despite his or her impairments, and the claimant's physical and mental restrictions, the statement is a medical opinion requiring the ALJ to state with particularity the weight given to it and the reasons therefor. Id. at 1178-79 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2); Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). “In the absence of such a statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and supported by substantial evidence.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (citations omitted). See also MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (failure to state with particularity the weight given to opinions and the reasons therefor constitutes reversible error). An ALJ may not “implicitly discount” or ignore any medical opinion. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178-79; MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053; McClurkin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 625 Fed.Appx. 960, 962-63 (11th Cir. 2015) (reversible error for an ALJ to fail to state weight given to non-examining physician's opinion).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Dr. Zelkowitz

         On February 3, 2012, Dr. Zelkowitz completed a form regarding Claimant's physical ability to do work-related activities (the “PRFC Form”). R. 349-54. The following is taken from the PRFC Form. Claimant can occasionally lift or carry up to ten pounds, but cannot lift or carry over ten pounds. R. 349. Claimant can sit for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday and stand or walk for one hour in an eight-hour workday. R. 350. Claimant can never reach overhead or operate foot controls. R. 351. He can never climb ladders or scaffolds, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. R. 352. Dr. Zelkowitz did not provide any medical or clinical findings in support of his opinion. R. 349-354.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the right shoulder, degeneration of the spine, ADHD, depression, anxiety, personality disorder, and bipolar disorder. R. 23. At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work except that Claimant cannot: 1) lift and carry more than twenty pounds occasionally; 2) lift and carry more than ten pounds frequently; 3) stand and walk for more than six hours in an eight-hour workday; 4) sit for more than six hours in an eight-hour workday; 5) do more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or climbing of ramps and stairs; and 6) crawl or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds.[2] R. 25. The ALJ gave little weight to the PRFC Form:

Little weight is given to the opinion of Dr. Zelkowitz at [R. 349-54]. Dr. Zelkowitz, an anesthesiologist, opined that [Claimant] was limited to perform less than even sedentary exertional work. Such extreme limitations are not supported by the medical evidence, and inasmuch as Dr. Zelkowitz did not cite medical evidence in support of his opinion, it is of little probative value.

R. 32 (emphasis added). Thus, the ALJ gave little weight to the PRFC Form because Dr. Zelkowitz did not cite medical evidence in support of his opinion. Id. Claimant argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by giving ...


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