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Nichols v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 7, 2018

ERICA JOAN NICHOLS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          DANIEL C, IRICK, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Erica Joan Nichols (Claimant) appeals to the District Court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Doc. 1; R. 1-6, 14, 161-64. Claimant argued, in part, that the Administrative Law Judge (the ALJ) erred by failing to weigh the opinion of John Papa, M.D., one of Claimant's treating physicians. Doc. 27 at 28-31. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In 2013, Claimant filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. R. 14, 161-64. Claimant alleged a disability onset date of September 12, 2011. R. 14, 161.

         The ALJ issued his decision on June 12, 2015. R. 14-25. In the decision, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: reflex sympathetic dystrophy, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, sleep apnea, adjustment disorder, and pain disorder. R. 16. The ALJ found that Claimant had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than a full range of light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).[1] R. 19. Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and/or walk for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; can occasionally climb stairs and ramps; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can frequently balance; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can have occasional exposure to temperature extremes; can understand and remember simple and detailed 1, 2, and 3-step instructions and tasks; can maintain attention, concentration, persistence, and pace for 2-hour segments of time with customary breaks between such segments; can tolerate occasional interaction with the public; and can tolerate occasional changes in job duties.

Id. The ALJ posed a hypothetical question to the vocational expert (VE) that was consistent with the foregoing RFC determination, and the VE testified that Claimant was capable of performing jobs in the national economy. R. 53-54. The ALJ thus found that Claimant was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 23-24. Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled. R. 24.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “In Social Security appeals, [the court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.'” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). 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) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         At step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and ability to perform past relevant work. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238. “The residual functional capacity is an assessment, based upon all of the relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The ALJ is responsible for determining the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c); 416.946(c). In doing so, the ALJ must consider all relevant evidence, including, but not limited to, the medical opinions of treating, examining, and non-examining medical sources. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), (3); 416.945(a)(1), (3); see also Rosario v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 877 F.Supp.2d 1254, 1265 (M.D. Fla. 2012).

         The weighing of treating, examining, and non-examining physicians' opinions is an integral part of steps four and five of the sequential evaluation process. In Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176 (11th Cir. 2011), the Eleventh Circuit stated that: “‘Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s), including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the claimant's] physical or mental restrictions.'” Id. at 1178-79 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2)) (alterations in original). “[T]he ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Id. at 1179 (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). “In the absence of such a statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Cowart v. Schwieker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir. 1981)).

         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. §§ 404.1527(c); 416.927(c). A treating physician's opinion must be given substantial or considerable weight, unless good cause is shown to the contrary. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2); 416.927(c)(2) (giving controlling weight to the treating physician's opinion unless it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence). “Good 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.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (quotation marks omitted).

         Claimant argued, in part, that the ALJ erred by failing to weigh, or even discuss, Dr. Papa's opinion that Claimant could not stand or walk for more than twenty minutes per hour. Doc. 27 at 28-31. Claimant argued that the ALJ offered no explanation ...


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