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McDonald v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

February 21, 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”), alleging disability beginning January 15, 2009. (Tr. 12.) A hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on February 20, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 26-58.) The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from January 15, 2009 through December 31, 2013, her date last insured.[2] (Tr. 12-21.)

         In reaching the decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: cervical disc disease, lumbar disc disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), syncope and gastroesophageal reflux disease.” (Tr. 14.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work. (Tr. 16.) Ultimately, the ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work of an administrative clerk as actually and generally performed. (Tr. 21.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from January 15, 2009 through December 31, 2013. 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 raises three issues on appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ did not explain the weight assigned to Dr. Dennis Dewey's treating opinions or provide good cause for not crediting these opinions.[3] Further, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to include the opinions of the State agency psychologists, Lawrence Annis, Ph.D. and Lee Reback, Psy.D., in the RFC assessment, despite assigning these opinions significant weight. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to address Dr. William Sessions' opinions that Plaintiff was unable to work due to her physical and mental impairments.

         Defendant responds that any error in the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Dewey's opinions was harmless because the past relevant work identified by the ALJ included all of the limitations in Dr. Dewey's opinions. Defendant further argues that any error in the ALJ's consideration of the State agency psychologists' opinions was also harmless. Defendant explains that the findings of moderate limitations are not part of the actual mental RFC, because the actual mental RFC assessment is recorded in the narrative discussions, which describe how the evidence supports each conclusion. In the narrative discussions, Dr. Annis and Dr. Reback stated that Plaintiff may occasionally experience some decrease in concentration and may have some difficulty adapting to change; according to Defendant, these are not definitive opinions about Plaintiff's limitations. Also, even assuming that the ALJ's RFC assessment, which provided that Plaintiff would be off task up to 10% of the workday, did not fully account for the State agency psychologists' opinions that Plaintiff should not perform fast paced or quota driven work, Defendant argues that any error is harmless because the past relevant work, as actually performed, was neither fast paced nor quota driven. Finally, Defendant argues that any error in the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Sessions' opinions was harmless because aside from the fact that these opinions were on issues reserved to the Commissioner, even if they were credited, they would not establish that Plaintiff had disabling limitations for any consecutive twelve-month period before the date last insured.

         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 Fed.Appx. 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 Fed.Appx. 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 except:

[The claimant] can occasionally reach overhead and occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can never crawl and she cannot work around unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts or have any concentrated exposure to humidity, wetness, dust, fumes or gases. She cannot work in any environments with temperature extremes. The claimant will be off task up to 10% of the workday.

(Tr. 16.) In making this finding, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's statements, the objective medical evidence, and the opinions of treating, examining, and non-examining sources. (See Tr. 16-20.)

         The ALJ addressed Dr. Dewey's opinions as follows:

Dennis D. Dewey, MD examined the claimant in November 2011 for her reported low back pain. She said that her pain was in the right lumbosacral area that radiated, at times, into the posterior thigh and lower leg. She stated that her pain was increased with bending forward and lifting. On physical examination she appeared quite anxious and tearful, she had decreased range of motion in her lumbar spine and she ambulated bent forward as she was unable to straighten without significant back pain. The claimant had an MRI of her lumbar spine in January 2012 that showed L4-5 mild to moderate central canal and bilateral neural foraminal narrowings with bilateral L4 nerve root abutment and possible right L4 nerve root mild impingement and L5-S1 bilateral moderate to marked neural foraminal stenosis with bilateral L5 nerve root compressions (Exhibit 3F). . . .
The claimant returned to see Dr. Dewey in February 2012. He said the claimant would benefit from a neurosurgical consultation and/or long-term pain management with injection type treatments. With regards to her occupational functioning, he opined that she would be best suited for a job that would allow her to sit and stand at will and would not require her to stand or walk for any extended period of time or require any frequent bending or lifting (Exhibit 3F).

(Tr. 18-19.)

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff's statements regarding her symptoms were not entirely credible. (Tr. 19.) With respect to Plaintiff's physical impairments, the ALJ stated:

[T]hese conditions are not as severe as she has alleged. She has had very little treatment for such allegedly disabling conditions and has not required any hospitalizations for her cervical disc disease, lumbar disc disease, COPD or GERD. She was hospitalized for a single episode of syncope in 2011, however, she has not required any further emergent treatment for this condition (Exhibit 1F). Additionally, William H. Sessions, MD said, in March 2012, that the claimant had no point tenderness in her back, she had adequate range of motion and her reflexes were adequate (Exhibit 4F/2). Furthermore, a physical examination of the claimant in September 2013 indicated that she had pain with range of motion in her back, otherwise the examination was unremarkable. She was instructed in performing Tai Chi exercises and told to perform stretching exercises before getting out of bed (Exhibit 9F, 11F). In December 2013, she had decreased range of motion in her back but no tenderness and her straight leg raise testing was normal (Exhibits 10F, 11F). The claimant's ...

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