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Ziegler v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 18, 2018

TARA LYNN ZIEGLER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          DANIEL C. IRICK UNITES STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Tara Lynn Ziegler (Claimant) appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for disability benefits. Doc. 1. Claimant raises a number of arguments challenging the Commissioner's final decision, and, based on those arguments, requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Doc. 19 at 23-26, 28-31, 33-39, 43-49. The Commissioner argues that her final decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. Id. at 26-28, 32-33, 39-43, 45-46, 48-49. The Court finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be AFFIRMED for the reasons discussed below.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

         This case stems from Claimant's application for supplemental security income, in which she alleged a disability onset date of September 20, 2012. R. 33, 180-88, 196. Claimant's application was denied on initial review, and on reconsideration. The matter then proceeded before an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing on December 2, 2014, at which Claimant and her representative appeared. R. 53-85. The ALJ entered her decision on February 11, 2015, and the Appeals Council denied review on July 20, 2016. R. 1-3, 33-44. This appeal followed.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION.

         The ALJ found that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: seizure disorder, history of asthma, left shoulder joint disorder, sciatica, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and polysubstance abuse. R. 35. The ALJ, however, determined that none of the foregoing impairments, individually or in combination, met or medically equaled any listed impairment. R. 35-36.

         The ALJ found that Claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), [1] with the following specific limitations:

[N]o climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolding; no exposure to hazards; and no exposure to the general public. The claimant is limited to simple routine tasks with no more than occasional collaborative efforts with coworkers and supervisors in a job with no goal setting judgments (a production schedule would be provided). The claimant can have no exposure to concentrated temperature extremes, or concentrated fumes, gases, or poorly ventilated areas. The claimant is precluded from overhead reaching with the non-dominant left arm.

         R. 36-37. The Claimant does not have any past relevant work. Thus, the ALJ proceeded onto step five of the sequential evaluation process and found, based on the vocational expert's (VE) testimony and Dictionary of Occupational Titles, that Claimant could perform other work in the national economy. R. 43-44. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled since the date of her application for disability benefits. R. 44.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW.

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, and whether the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is defined as “more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision, when determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). The Court may not reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, and, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the reviewing court must affirm it if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         IV. ANALYSIS.

         Claimant raises five distinct assignments of error: 1) the ALJ failed to fully develop the record; 2) the ALJ did not give proper weight to the examining psychiatrist's opinion; 3) the ALJ erred by finding that Claimant's testimony concerning her pain and limitations not entirely credible; 4) the ALJ erred by finding that Claimant's mental impairments only limited her to performing simple, routine tasks in a socially limited environment; and 5) the ALJ erred by relying on the vocational expert's (VE) testimony in determining that Claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Doc. 19 at 23-26, 28-31, 33-39, 43-48. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Duty to Develop.

         The record demonstrates that Claimant suffers from and has recei v e d t r ea tm e n t f o r a h i s t o r y of seizures and a variety of mental impairments. Claimant suggests that “[i]t is possible that the seizure disorder has an [e]ffect on the mental health disorders and/or the mental health disorders have affected the seizure disorder or made it more difficult for [her] to properly manage the seizure disorder.” Doc. 19 at 25. Thus, Claimant argues that the ALJ “should have obtained the services of a medical expert and/or psychological expert to evaluate the effect of [her] . . . brain dysfunction on [her ability] . . . to function in light of the seizures, the number of seizures that [she] would potentially suffer from, [and] the interrelationship of [her] mental health disorders and [her] seizure disorder[.]” Id. at 26.

         The Commissioner argues that the record contains sufficient evidence to allow the ALJ to make an informed decision, and that Claimant failed to demonstrate how she was prejudiced by the ALJ's failure to obtain a consultative examination. Id. at 27-28. Thus, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ was under no duty to order a consultative examination. Id. at 28.

         The ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997).[2] This duty generally requires the ALJ to assist in gathering medical evidence, and to order a consultative examination when such an evaluation is necessary to make an informed decision. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(b). There must be a showing that the ALJ's failure to develop the record led to evidentiary gaps in the record, which resulted in unfairness or clear prejudice, before the court will remand a case for further development of the record. Graham, 129 F.3d at 1423 (citing Brown, 44 F.3d at 934-35).

         The record contains approximately 1, 500 pages of medical records dating from 2006 through 2015, many of which relate to Claimant's seizures and mental impairments. R. 310-1845. The record also contains a number of medical opinions from examining and non-examining medical sources, including opinions from non-examining medical and psychological consultants and an examining psychiatrist that were rendered following the alleged onset date. R. 92-95, 106-111, 1421-25. Claimant implicitly argues that this evidence was not enough to allow the ALJ to make an informed decision, because there was nothing addressing the possible interaction between her seizures and mental impairments and the limitations that may be caused by those impairments. See Doc. 19 at 25-26. This argument is speculative, as it does not identify any particular evidentiary gaps in the record. The record contains a wealth of evidence concerning Claimant's impairments, including her seizure and mental impairments, as well as medical opinions from examining and non-examining physicians, which the ALJ carefully considered in her decision (R. 38-43). This evidence addressed the nature, frequency, and effects of Claimant's seizure and mental impairments, as well as Claimant's other impairments, and, thus, was sufficient to allow the ALJ to make an informed decision about the effects of all of Claimant's impairments. Thus, the Court finds that the ALJ was not required to order an additional examination. See Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007) (“The [ALJ] . . . is not required to order a consultative examination as long as the record contains sufficient evidence for the administrative law judge to make an informed decision.”).

         Further, assuming the ALJ should have ordered an examination, Claimant has not demonstrated how she was prejudiced by the ALJ's failure to obtain that examination. The record, as previously discussed, contained ample evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision, including medical opinions from examining and non-examining medical sources. R. 310-1845. Claimant suggests that the examination would have provided information not otherwise contained in the record, including insight into the functional limitations caused by her seizures, the number of seizures that she experiences in a given period, and the interrelationship of her seizures and mental impairments. Doc. 19 at 26. The record, however, contains, in one form or another, much of the information that would likely be considered and discussed in the examination report. The record, for example, details Claimant's reports of seizures, and, thus, allowed the ALJ to consider the frequency, severity, and treatment of Claimant's seizures, and account for that impairment in her RFC determination. Thus, it is does not appear that an additional examination would alter the outcome of this case. Therefore, the Court finds that Claimant has failed to demonstrate what, if any, prejudiced resulted due to the ALJ's failure to obtain an additional consultative examination concerning her seizure and mental impairments.

         B. Medical Opinion.

         Claimant argues that the ALJ gave “improper weight” to one-time examining psychiatrist, Dr. Harish Kher, and, thus, suggests that the ALJ should have given Dr. Kher's opinion significant weight and included his findings and opinions in the RFC determination. Doc. 19 at 44-45. The Commissioner argues that while the ALJ did not articulate the weight she assigned Dr. Kher's opinion, the ALJ nevertheless considered Dr. Kher's findings and opinion, which were relatively consistent with the ALJ's RFC determination. Id. at 46. Thus, the Commissioner argues that to the extent the ALJ committed any error with respect to Dr. Kher's opinion, that error is harmless. Id.

         The consideration and weighing of medical opinions is an integral part in determining the claimant's RFC. The ALJ must consider a number of factors in determining how much weight to give each medical opinion, including: 1) whether the physician has examined the claimant; 2) the length, nature, and extent of the physician's relationship with the claimant; 3) the medical evidence and explanation supporting the physician's opinion; 4) how consistent the physician's opinion is with the record as a whole; and 5) the physician's specialization. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). The ALJ must state the weight assigned to each medical opinion, and articulate the reasons supporting the weight assigned to each opinion. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. The failure to ...


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