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Czupta v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 29, 2017

JEFFREY ERNEST CZUPTA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          GREGORY J. KELLY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Jeffrey Czupta (the “Claimant”) appeals to the District Court a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Doc. No. 1. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) committed reversible error by: 1) failing to weigh a treatment note from Dr. Glenn I. Kolluri; and 2) applying improper legal standards when determining Claimant's credibility. Doc. No. 19 at 9-10, 14-17. Claimant requests that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 20. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On June 25, 2012, Claimant filed his DIB application alleging an onset date of August 15, 2011. R. 175. On October 15, 2012, Claimant's application was denied initially. R. 84. On May 17, 2013, Claimant's application was denied upon reconsideration. R. 91. On July 1, 2013, Claimant filed a request for hearing. R. 97. On February 17, 2015, Claimant attended a hearing before the ALJ. R. 30-56. On April 24, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 11-23.

         On May 12, 2015, Claimant requested review of the ALJ's decision. R. 5-7. On August 1, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request. R. 1-4. On September 9, 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. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had severe impairments of benign brain tumors and migraine headaches. R. 13. Central to this case is the origin of Claimant's headaches. As noted by the ALJ, the record contains a number of medical opinions as to whether Claimant's headaches are caused by his brain tumor. A September 14, 2011 treatment note from Dr. Rohit Khanna states that Claimant's MRI revealed “a mass in the right ambient and quadrigeminal cistern with some mild mass effect in the brain stem.” R. 288. Dr. Khanna, however, was “not convinced that [Claimant's] headaches are related to this tumor although some of the symptoms could be from this mild mass effect that he has.” R. 290. A September 29, 2011 treatment note from Dr. William Friedman states that Claimant's brain tumor “could very well be causing his severe headaches.” R. 283. A May 16, 2012 treatment note from Dr. Kolluri states that Claimant's “headaches are intractable, chronic, and not responding to any of the usual medications …” R. 299. Dr. Kolluri stated: “I think [Claimant] needs to see a headache specialist at Shands Hospital in Gainesville for evaluation …” Id. Dr. Kolluri referred Claimant to a neurologist in Gainesville, Florida, Dr. Guangbin Xia, who in a February 22, 2013 treatment note stated that it is likely “[Claimant's] tumor is contributing to the headache.” R. 378. Finally, in a January 23, 2015 headaches medical source statement, Dr. Dina Doolin, D.O. and Beth Patel, ARNP found that Claimant had severe headaches which are caused by an epidermoid tumor. R. 489.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with certain exertional and nonexertional limitations. R. 15. The ALJ did not state the weight given to Dr. Kolluri's treatment note and the reasons therefor. R. 18. Instead, the ALJ found that the treatment note noted “normal neurological findings and indicate[d] only subjective complaints of ongoing headaches.” Id. The ALJ also gave significant weight to the opinions of state agency non-examining reviewing physicians. R. 21.

         The ALJ also made a determination on Claimant's credibility, finding that Claimant's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [Claimant's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible …” R. 16. The ALJ gave the following reasons for her finding. First, other than symptom management, no further treatment had been recommended. R. 21. Second, Claimant's conditions appear to be satisfactorily managed with pain medications. Id. Third, the objective medical evidence does not suggest that Claimant is disabled and cannot work. Id. When making her third finding, the ALJ stated that “no specialist has confirmed that his tumor is causing [Claimant's] headaches.” Id. Fourth, Claimant's activities of daily living are inconsistent with the severity of his alleged headaches. Id. Finally, “[d]espite being told that opiate medications could be the source of his issues by [Dr. Kolluri], [Claimant] did return to taking these type[s] of medications when offered by [Dr. Lee].” Id.

         IV.ANALYSIS

         A. Dr. Kolluri

         On May 16, 2012, Dr. Kolluri completed a treatment note stating that Claimant's headaches are “intractable, chronic, and not responding to any of the usual medications.” R. 299. The treatment note states that Dr. Kolluri has no further recommendations for Claimant's headaches other than having Claimant see a headache specialist. Id. At step four, the ALJ did not state the weight given to Dr. Kolluri's treatment note and the reasons therefor. R. 18. Instead, the ALJ found that Dr. Kolluri's treatment note noted “normal neurological findings” and indicated “only subjective complaints of ongoing headaches …” Id. Claimant argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to weigh Dr. Kolluri's treatment note. Doc. No. 19 at 9-10. In response, the Commissioner questions whether Dr. Kolluri's ...


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