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Flinchbaugh v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 1, 2018

Kayle M. Flinchbaugh, Plaintiff,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Patricia D. Barksdale United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is a case under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) to review a final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying Kayla Flinchbaugh's[1] claim for supplemental security income.[2] Flinchbaugh seeks reversal and remand based on the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) treatment of opinions of Dr. Philip Yates and Richard Grissinger. Doc. 14. Concluding the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and substantial evidence supports the decision, I recommend affirmance.


         Flinchbaugh was born in 1989 and last worked in April 2010. Tr. 212, 271. She has worked briefly as a fast-food cook and housekeeper.[3] Tr. 41-42, 271. She lives with her boyfriend and two young children. Tr. 43, 46. She alleges she became disabled in June 2013 from organic brain syndrome, cervical cancer, and a suppressed immune system. Tr. 38, 271. She proceeded through the administrative process, failing at each level. Tr. 1-6, 16-28, 59-80, 83-89, 96-102. This case followed. Doc. 1.

         ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ entered a decision on March 3, 2015. Tr. 28.

         At step one, [4] the ALJ found Flinchbaugh has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 2012 (the application date). Tr. 18.

         At step two, the ALJ found Flinchbaugh suffers from severe impairments of asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease, status post-gastrointestinal surgery, borderline intellectual functioning, dysthymic disorder, and anxiety-related disorder. Tr. 18.

         At step three, the ALJ found Flinchbaugh has no impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 19. He considered the “paragraph B”[5] criteria to determine if her mental impairments meet or equal the criteria of a listing. Tr. 19-21. He found she has a mild restriction in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in social functioning; and moderate difficulties maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace; and has had no episode of decompensation of extended duration. Tr. 20-21. He also considered the “paragraph C”[6] criteria and found she does not meet them. Tr. 22.

         After stating he had considered the entire record and summarizing the medical evidence, the ALJ found Flinchbaugh has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “less than the full range of light work”:

The claimant can lift, carry, push, and/or pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She can stand and walk for approximately six hours and can sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. She can stoop, crouch, and crawl occasionally but should never climb ladders or scaffolds. She must avoid exposure to vibration, unprotected heights, and hazardous machinery. Her work is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The claimant should have no interaction with the general public and only occasional interaction with coworkers.Tr. 22-26.

         At steps four and five, the ALJ found Flinchbaugh has no past relevant work but can perform jobs the vocational expert identified (assembly machine tender, bottling line attendant, and packing line worker), and those jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 27-28. He therefore found no disability. Tr. 28.

         Standard of Review

         A court's review of an ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports his findings. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance”; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. A court may not decide facts anew, reweigh evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's judgment. Id. A court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if the evidence preponderates against the factual findings. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990).


         Regardless of its source, the Social Security Administration “will evaluate every medical opinion” it receives. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). “Medical opinions are statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of … impairment(s), including … symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [one] can still do despite impairment(s), and … physical or mental restrictions.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(a). Opinions on issues that are dispositive of a case, such as whether a claimant is disabled or able to work, are not medical opinions because they are opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(1).

         An 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). “In the absence of such a statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits of a claim is rational and supported by substantial evidence.” Id. “Unless [an ALJ] has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.” Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir. 1981) (internal quotation marks omitted). If an ALJ does not “state with at least some measure of clarity the grounds for his decision, ” a court will not affirm simply because some rationale might have supported it. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179.

         Unless the Social Security Administration gives a treating source's opinion controlling weight, it will consider several factors to decide the weight to give a medical opinion: examining relationship, treatment relationship, supportability, consistency, specialization, and any other relevant factor. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c).

         An acceptable medical source is a licensed physician (a medical or osteopathic doctor), licensed or certified psychologist, licensed optometrist, licensed podiatrist, or qualified speech-language pathologist. 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a). An ALJ may also consider evidence from sources not listed as acceptable medical sources. 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(d). That evidence may show the severity of an impairment and how it affects a claimant's ability to work but cannot establish the existence of a medically determinable impairment or constitute a “medical opinion.” Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 06-03p, 2006 WL 2263437 (Aug. 9, 2006).[7] Opinions from other sources “are important and should be evaluated on key issues such as impairment severity and functional effects, along with the other relevant evidence in the file.” Id. The record “should reflect the consideration of opinions” from other sources, and the ALJ should explain the weight given to them “or otherwise ensure that the discussion of the evidence … allows a claimant or subsequent reviewer to follow [his] reasoning, when such opinions may have an effect on the outcome of the case.” Id. The factors relevant in evaluating medical opinions “can be applied to opinion evidence from ‘other sources.'” Id.

         A claimant's RFC is the most she can still do despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The Social Security Administration uses the RFC at step four to decide if she can perform any past relevant work and, if not, at step five with other factors to decide if there are other jobs in significant numbers in the national economy she can perform. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(5).

         The limitations found when assessing the “paragraph B” criteria are not an RFC assessment. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *4 (July 2, 1996). The mental RFC assessment “requires a more detailed assessment by itemizing various functions.” Id.

         The mental demands of unskilled jobs include “the abilities (on a sustained basis) to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work setting.” SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *4-5 (January 1, 1985). If an ALJ finds a claimant has moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, he must implicitly or explicitly account for any related limitation in his hypothetical question to the vocational expert or find the claimant's ability to work is unaffected by the difficulties. Winschel v. Comm'r, 631 F.3d 1176, 1181 (11th Cir. 2011). Failure to do so renders the hypothetical question to the vocational expert incomplete and precludes reliance on the expert's testimony as substantial evidence supporting finding the claimant able to work. Id. “[R]estricting the claimant to simple and routine tasks adequately accounts for restrictions related to concentration, persistence, and pace where ...

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