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Skiles v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

December 8, 2017




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of an administrative decision denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning July 11, 2011. (Tr. 132.) A hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 7, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 32-57.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from July 11, 2011 through March 6, 2015, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 18-26.)

         In reaching the decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disk disease with history of back surgery and bipolar II disorder.” (Tr. 20.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work. (Tr. 21.) After finding that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, the ALJ found that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 25.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from July 11, 2011 through March 6, 2015. Plaintiff has exhausted her available administrative remedies and the case is properly before the Court. The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Standard

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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 district court must view the evidence 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); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (stating the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not provide good cause for rejecting the opinions of her treating physician, John Carey, M.D., because the reasons he offered were either legally insufficient and/or factually inaccurate. Plaintiff contends that in formulating the RFC, the ALJ's discussion of the record was “limited and highly selective.” Plaintiff adds that in discrediting Dr. Carey's opinions, the ALJ misrepresented her daily activities. Plaintiff asserts that by failing to adopt Dr. Carey's assessed limitations, the ALJ formulated an RFC assessment and hypothetical questions to the Vocational Expert (“VE”), which failed to accurately describe all of Plaintiff's limitations, and as such, the ALJ improperly relied on the VE's testimony. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erroneously relied on Dr. Charles E. Moore's non-examining opinions, which were rendered 19 months before the hearing without consideration of Dr. Carey's subsequent opinions.

         Defendant responds that the ALJ provided good reasons, supported by substantial evidence, for giving Dr. Carey's opinions little weight. The Court agrees with Defendant and, therefore, affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         A. Standard for Evaluating Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ is required to consider all the evidence in the record when making a disability determination. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(3). With regard to medical opinion evidence, “the ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). Substantial weight must be given to a treating physician's opinion unless there is good cause to do otherwise. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).

         “‘[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 v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). When a treating physician's opinion does not warrant controlling weight, the ALJ must nevertheless weigh the medical opinion based on: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) the medical evidence supporting the opinion, (4) consistency of the medical opinion with the record as a whole, (5) specialization in the medical issues at issue, and (6) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6). “However, the ALJ is not required to explicitly address each of those factors. Rather, the ALJ must provide ‘good cause' for rejecting a treating physician's medical opinions.” Lawton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 431 F. App'x 830, 833 (11th Cir. June 22, 2011) (per curiam).

         Although a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than a consulting physician's opinion, see Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 518 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2), “[t]he opinions of state agency physicians” can outweigh the contrary opinion of a treating physician if “that opinion has been properly discounted, ” Cooper v. Astrue, 2008 WL 649244, *3 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 10, 2008). Further, “the ALJ may reject any medical opinion if the evidence supports a contrary finding.” Wainwright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 2007 WL 708971, *2 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2007) (per curiam); see also Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam) (same).

         “The ALJ is required to consider the opinions of non-examining state agency medical and psychological consultants because they ‘are highly qualified physicians and psychologists, who are also experts in Social Security disability evaluation.'” Milner v. Barnhart, 275 F. App'x 947, 948 (11th Cir. May 2, 2008) (per curiam); see also SSR 96-6p (stating that the ALJ must treat the findings of State agency medical consultants as expert opinion evidence of non-examining sources). While the ALJ is not bound by the findings of non-examining physicians, the ALJ may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to them in his decision. SSR 96-6p.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light exertional work as follows:

[The claimant] must have a 30-minute sit/stand option. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never can climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She cannot balance but can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant cannot reach overhead or tolerate concentrated exposure to extreme cold or vibrations. Additionally, the claimant is limited to simple tasks with little variation that take a short period of time to learn, up to and including 30 days. She could tolerate changes in a routine work setting and tolerate occasional contact with coworkers and the general public. The claimant could relate adequately to supervisors.

(Tr. 21.) In making this finding, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's testimony, the Function Report completed on January 3, 2013, Plaintiff's treatment records, including the opinions of Dr. Carey, Plaintiff's pain management specialist at Jacksonville Spine Center, the results of diagnostic studies, and the ...

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