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Mansell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Gainesville Division

November 17, 2017

CORRY M. MANSELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This Social Security case was referred to the undersigned upon consent of the parties by United States District Judge Mark E. Walker. ECF No. 9. It is now before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the final determination of the Acting Commissioner (Commissioner) of the Social Security Administration (SSA) denying Plaintiff's Title II application for period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). After careful consideration of the record, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         On or about July 31, 2012, Plaintiff, Corry M. Mansell, applied for DIB and SSI benefits with an alleged onset date of March 5, 2010, based on bipolar disorder and anxiety. Tr. 13, 280-87, 311, 315.[1] Plaintiff's last date insured for DIB was March 31, 2014. Tr. 28, 281. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on November 21, 2012, and upon reconsideration on February 22, 2013. Tr. 13, 97-160.

         On April 15, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing. Tr. 13, 162-63. On April 2, 2015, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ken B. Terry, conducted the first of two video hearings in Jacksonville, Florida. Tr. 13, 35-57. Plaintiff appeared without representation from Gainesville, Florida.[2]Tr. 56-89. Thereafter, Plaintiff was represented and on September 16, 2015, Plaintiff's representative filed a brief, Tr. 366-67, and the hearing re- convened on September 28, 2015, with Plaintiff appearing by video in Gainesville, Florida, and the ALJ appeared in Jacksonville, Florida. Tr. 13, 58-96. Plaintiff testified and was represented by Martin J. Goldberg. Tr. 13, 58, 62-90, 233-35. Paul R. Dolan, an impartial vocational expert, testified. Tr. 13, 58-59, 89-95, 364-65 (Resume).

         On October 23, 2015, the ALJ entered a decision concluding that Plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 13-29. On December 16, 2015, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision and filed a brief. Tr. 7-9, 368-69. On January 19, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         On March 16, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Complaint requesting judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. ECF No. 1. Both parties filed memoranda of law, ECF Nos. 15, 16, which have been considered.

         II. Findings of the ALJ

         The ALJ made several findings relative to the issues raised in this appeal:

1. “The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2014.” Tr. 15.
2. “The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity [SGA] since March 5, 2010, the alleged onset date.” Id.
3. “The claimant has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder and anxiety.” Id. The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's obesity in accordance with Social Security Ruling (SSR) 02-1p and determined that Plaintiff's obesity, in combination with other impairments, is “non-severe as it does not impose significant work-related limitations.” Tr. 15-16.
4. “The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. 16. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06.”[3] Id. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has mild restriction in activities of daily living and mild difficulties in social functioning, moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation, which have been of extended duration. Tr. 16-17.
5. “[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity [RFC] to perform a full range of light work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: Mentally, he is precluded from performing complex tasks but is capable of simple, routine tasks consistent with unskilled work with concentration for those tasks for 2 hour periods and normal breaks and a lunch.” Tr. 18-27; see infra at n.7.
6. “The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work” as a sales agent, insurance and sales representative, office machines. Tr. 27.
7. The claimant was 37 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date; he has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Tr. 28.
8. There are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's ability to perform at all exertional levels has been compromised by nonexertional limitations. Id. As a result, the vocational expert was asked whether jobs exist in the national economy which Plaintiff can perform. The vocational expert testified that Plaintiff was capable of performing several representative jobs including cleaner, commercial or institutional; warehouse worker; and router. Id. These jobs have heavy, medium, and light exertion levels, respectively, SVP's of 2, and are unskilled.[4] Tr. 28, 92-93.
9. “The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 5, 2010, through the date of this decision.” Tr. 29.

         III. Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         This Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and premised upon correct legal principles. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted); accord Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). “The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).[5]

         “In making an initial determination of disability, the examiner must consider four factors: ‘(1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) diagnosis of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability as testified to by the claimant and corroborated by [other observers, including family members], and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history.'” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240 (citations omitted). A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do past relevant work, “but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). A disability is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 (duration requirement).[6] Both the “impairment” and the “inability” must be expected to last not less than 12 months. Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002). In addition, an individual is entitled to DIB if he is under a disability prior to the expiration of his insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A); Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d at 1211; Torres v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 845 F.2d 1136, 1137-38 (1st Cir. 1988); Cruz Rivera v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 818 F.2d 96, 97 (1st Cir. 1986).

         The Commissioner analyzes a claim in five steps. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v):

1. Is the individual currently engaged in substantial gainful activity [SGA]?
2. Does the individual have any severe impairments?
3. Does the individual have any severe impairments that meet or equal those listed in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P?
4. Does the individual have the RFC to perform work despite limitations and are there any impairments which prevent past relevant work?[7]
5. Do the individual's impairments prevent other work?

         A positive finding at step one or a negative finding at step two results in disapproval of the application for benefits. A positive finding at step three results in approval of the application for benefits. At step four, the claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment that precludes the performance of past relevant work. Consideration is given to the assessment of the claimant's RFC and the claimant's past relevant work. If the claimant can still do past relevant work, there will be a finding that the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant carries this burden, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that despite the claimant's impairments, the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237; Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229 (11th Cir. 1999); Chester, 792 F.2d at 131; MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1052 (11th Cir. 1986); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the Commissioner carries this burden, the claimant must prove that he or she cannot perform the work suggested by the Commissioner. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987).

         As the finder of fact, the ALJ is charged with the duty to evaluate all of the medical opinions of the record resolving conflicts that might appear. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. When considering medical opinions, the following factors apply for determining the weight to give to any medical opinion: (1) the frequency of examination and the length, nature, extent of the treatment relationship; (2) the evidence in support of the opinion, such as “[t]he more a medical source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, the more weight” that opinion is given; (3) the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole; (4) whether the opinion is from a specialist and, if it is, it will be accorded greater weight; and (5) other relevant but unspecified factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b) & (c).

         The opinion of the claimant's treating physician must be accorded considerable weight by the Commissioner unless good cause is shown to the contrary. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). This is so because treating physicians “are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). “This requires a relationship of both duration and frequency.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 762 (10th Cir. 2003).

         The reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of the treating physician must be supported by substantial evidence, Marbury v. Sullivan, 957 F.2d 837, 841 (11th Cir. 1992), and must be clearly articulated. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241. “The Secretary 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 is reversible error.” MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053.

         The ALJ may discount a treating physician's opinion report regarding an inability to work if it is unsupported by objective medical evidence and is wholly conclusory. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583-84 (11th Cir. 1991). Stated somewhat differently, the ALJ may discount the treating physician's opinion if good cause exists to do so. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986). Good cause may be found when the opinion is “not bolstered by the evidence, ” the evidence “supports a contrary finding, ” the opinion is “conclusory” or “so brief and conclusory that it lacks persuasive weight, ” the opinion is “inconsistent with [the treating physician's own medical records, ” the statement “contains no [supporting] clinical data or information, ” the opinion “is unsubstantiated by any clinical or laboratory findings, ” or the opinion “is not accompanied by objective medical evidence.” Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440; Edwards, 937 F.2d at 583 (citing Schnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 582 (11th Cir. 1987)). Further, where a treating physician has merely made conclusory statements, the ALJ may afford them such weight to the extent they are supported by clinical or laboratory findings and are consistent with other evidence as to a claimant's impairments. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986).

         Further, when a claimant attempts to establish a disability based on his subjective complaints, he must provide evidence of an underlying medical condition in either objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged symptoms or that the medical condition reasonably could be expected to give rise to the alleged symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a) and (b); Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225-26.

         Plaintiff bears the burden of proving he is disabled, and consequently, is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211.

         IV. Legal Analysis

         Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with limitations and, as a result, is capable of performing other work.


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he did not give appropriate weight to the opinions of Sandra R. Jones, Ph.D., L.H.M.C., a treating mental health counselor; Robert M. Licata, M.D., a staff psychiatrist with Amen Clinic, Inc., who met with Plaintiff to review SPECHT studies and for a full neuropsychiatric evaluation; Vicci L. Cascioli, R.N., A.P., a treating acupuncturist, who treated Plaintiff for anxiety and depression; William E. Benet, Ph.D., Psy.D, a psychologist, who provided a consultative psychological exam; and Elias H. Sakris, M.D., a psychiatrist from Sarkis Family Psychiatry, who examined and treated Plaintiff and ultimately provided a mental assessment form in 2015. ECF No. 15. Plaintiff argues that each of these health care providers support his inability to work and disability.



         The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's pre-hearing and hearing statements.

At the hearing, the claimant testified that he was 42 years old. He testified that he lives with his wife in a one-story house. He testified that he is 5'11” and weighs 259 pounds. He stated that he has a valid driver's license and drives on a daily basis. He stated that he drives to his parent's house, doctors' appointments and d [sic] to the grocery store. He denied having any problems driving. He drove himself to the hearing. He testified that he has not worked since his alleged onset date. He stated that his wife works (and earns about $33, 00 [sic] per year) and his parents also help him pay necessary bills. He testified that he went to a job ...

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