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Herring v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

February 14, 2018




         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”). Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on November 1, 2012. (Tr. 177.) A hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 4, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (Tr. 53-83.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from November 1, 2012 through June 29, 2015, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 15-27.)

         In reaching the decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: disorders of the spine; anxiety disorder; fibromyalgia/inflammatory arthritis; osteoarthritis; migraine headaches; disorders of the left shoulder; neuropathy; and carpal tunnel syndrome [status post] left-sided surgical release.” (Tr. 17.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work. (Tr. 19-20.) Then, after finding that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 25-26.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from November 1, 2012 through June 29, 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 of Review

         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[3]

         A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Dr. Rocha's Opinions

         Plaintiff's first argument is that the ALJ's RFC finding is deficient as a matter of law because it does not accurately describe all of Plaintiff's impairments and limitations. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to consider the seven consistent opinions of her treating physician, Lily Rocha, M.D., regarding her work-related limitations, which were issued on February 22, 2013, May 27, 2013, June 21, 2013, July 19, 2013 (three separate opinions), and September 16, 2013. Plaintiff points out that each of Dr. Rocha's opinions establishes that Plaintiff is unable to sit, stand, and walk, in combination, for the duration of an eight-hour workday due to her physical impairments, that she is limited to no more than sedentary lifting and carrying requirements, and that she would be absent from work over two days a month. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide good/specific/supported reasons for assigning very limited weight to Dr. Rocha's opinions as to Plaintiff's physical limitations. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to address the § 404.1527 factors when weighing Dr. Rocha's opinions and considered the subject opinions in isolation from each other. At the same time, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not address each opinion individually as he should have, given that the opinions are premised on different impairments. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Dr. Rocha's opinions with respect to Plaintiff's mental limitations. Plaintiff explains that despite giving these opinions great weight, the ALJ failed to incorporate them into the RFC finding or explain why they were excluded therefrom. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Rocha's opinion that Plaintiff would be absent from work more than two days a month, but failed to incorporate this opinion in his findings without an explanation.

         Defendant responds that the ALJ properly considered Dr. Rocha's opinions in assessing Plaintiff's RFC. Defendant asserts that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to give little weight to Dr. Rocha's opinions in regards to Plaintiff's physical impairments. As to Dr. Rocha's opinions with respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments, Defendant argues that Plaintiff misreads the ALJ's decision and that the ALJ properly afforded great weight to Dr. Rocha's opinion that Plaintiff's anxiety did not significantly interfere with her functioning.

         1. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work as follows:

[Plaintiff] needs to be able to perform her tasks in either the seated or standing position at her option; she needs to avoid ladders or unprotected heights; she needs to avoid the operation of heavy moving machinery; she is limited to occasional bending, crouching, kneeling and stooping; she needs to avoid squatting and crawling; she needs to avoid the push and pull of arm controls; she needs to avoid overhead reaching; she needs to avoid the operation of foot controls; and she needs simple tasks with low stress and no production line.

(Tr. 19-20.)

         In making this determination, the ALJ considered, among others, the opinions of Dr. Rocha. He noted:

Throughout 2013 and 2014, the claimant followed up with her primary care physician, Lily Rocha, MD, who prescribed a variety of medications for the claimant's impairments, provided referrals to specialists, and monitored blood work. Dr. Rocha provided numerous disability opinions, but her treatment notes are handwritten and include minimal detail or explanation of findings; therefore, they are less useful than other records (see e.g., Exhibit 29F).

(Tr. 21-22.) The ALJ weighed Dr. Rocha's opinions as follows:

The numerous and repetitive Medical Source Statements from treating primary care physician Lily Rocha, MD, are given limited weight because they indicate fairly extreme limitations that are largely unsupported by Dr. Rocha's treatment notes and which conflict with some of the opinions offered by specialists, including the claimant's orthopedist, regarding her ability to perform fine and gross manipulation and overhead reaching. For example, Dr. Rocha indicates that the claimant cannot perform manipulative motions with her hands on a sustained basis, which is contrary to the orthopedic surgeon's opinion, but Dr. Rocha states that the claimant can reach overhead 100% of the time, which is contradicted by the evidence and the claimant's statements regarding her left shoulder disorder (Exhibits 4F, 7F-9F, 12F, 14F, 20F and 23F-26F). As such, these opinions were given very limited weight, and only to the extent that they were consistent with other medical evidence of record.
Conversely, Dr. Rocha's opinions regarding the claimant's anxiety, namely that it does not significantly interfere with her functioning and that it would not preclude an ability to perform simple tasks, are given great weight as they are consistent with the overall medical evidence of record and with the claimant's reported symptoms and conservative treatment (Exhibits 6F, 19F and 30F).

(Tr. 24.)

         2. Dr. ...

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