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Shelton v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 22, 2018




         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying his claim for disability insurance benefits under the Act. Upon review, I respectfully recommend that the Commissioner's final decision in this case be AFFIRMED, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         On September 12, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability commencing on June 24, 2010, due to “broken spine, compressed disks, arthritis, mental” (Tr. 192-93, 212). His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 143-150, 104), and he requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 38-66). On February 8, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled and issued his unfavorable decision (Tr. 10-37). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-8), making the ALJ's February 2016 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff brings this action after exhausting his available administrative remedies. This dispute has been fully briefed, and was referred to me for a report and recommendation.

         The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process appearing at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-1240 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 n.10.

         In this case, the ALJ performed the required sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date (Tr. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of spinal radiculitis, T6-8 compression deformity, degeneration of the left knee and mood disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)) (Tr. 21). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 15-17). Next, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally crouch. The claimant needs to avoid extreme cold/humidity. He needs to avoid unprotected heights or dangerous machinery. The claimant requires a sit/stand option for 30 minutes every 30 minutes. He is limited to simple repetitive 1-3 step tasks with occasional changes in the work setting.

(Tr. 17).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. 29).[2] Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded at step five that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform (Tr. 30-31). As a result, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from his June 24, 2010 alleged onset date, through December 31, 2015, his date last insured (Tr. 31).

         Standard of Review

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). Findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). When 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 preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's decision. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The district court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner.]” Id. "The district court must view the record 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) (per curiam); accord Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the factual findings).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to properly weigh and consider the opinions of treating psychiatrist Earl Taitt, M.D., and by improperly relying on the testimony of the vocational expert.

         Evaluation of Dr. Taitt's Opinions

         The Eleventh Circuit has held that whenever a physician offers a statement reflecting judgments about the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, including symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis, what the claimant can still do despite his or her impairments, and the claimant's physical and mental restrictions, the statement is an opinion requiring the ALJ to state with particularity the weight given to it and the reasons therefor. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178-79 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2); Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). When evaluating a physician's opinion, an ALJ considers numerous factors, including whether the physician examined the claimant, whether the physician treated the claimant, the evidence the ...

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