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Cooper v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

March 16, 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 originally claimed that she became disabled on October 1, 2011, but amended her onset date to May 7, 2012. (Tr. 17, 51, 102-03.) The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on September 19, 2013 (Tr. 100-59), and subsequently issued a decision on February 28, 2014, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 173-83.)

         On January 21, 2015, the Appeals Council (“AC”) entered an order remanding the case back to the ALJ to conduct further proceedings. (Tr. 190-92.) Specifically, the AC found that the ALJ failed to identify or discuss the medical opinions rendered by Cathy Whitley, M.D., an examining physician. (Tr.190.) The AC noted that an ALJ cannot ignore medical opinions and noted that Dr. Whitley's opinions, if accepted, may preclude the performance of Plaintiff's past relevant work. (Id.) Moreover, the AC found that the ALJ erred in failing to evaluate Plaintiff's obesity in the decision. (Tr. 191.) Upon remand, the AC directed the ALJ to, inter alia, “[e]valuate [Plaintiff's] obesity and its effects in combination with [Plaintiff's] other physical impairments, pursuant to Social Security Ruling 02-01p, ” and to “evaluate the consultative opinion by Dr. Whitley, pursuant to the provisions of 20 CFR 404.1527 and Social Security Rulings 96-2p and 96-5p, and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence.” (Id.) The AC reminded the ALJ that he could “request that Dr. Whitley provide additional evidence and/or further clarification of the opinion.” (Id. (internal citation omitted).)

         The ALJ did not request any further information from Dr. Whitley on remand. Instead, the ALJ obtained a written report dated March 9, 2015 from consultative physician Timothy McCormick, DO, MPJH. (Tr. 1421-27.) The ALJ also conducted a second hearing on June 18, 2015. (Tr. 39-97.) The ALJ rendered a second decision on July 14, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled from May 7, 2012, the alleged onset date, through the date of the decision.[2]

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled from May 7, 2012 through July 14, 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 REVERSED AND REMANDED.

         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 argues two general points on appeal. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the record medical evidence. More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff's cardiovascular impairments, failed to properly evaluate the opinions of Drs. Whitley and McCormick, and failed to properly describe Plaintiff's status in the hypothetical presented to the vocational expert (“VE”). Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider her credibility. Plaintiff specifically asserts that the ALJ erred in discounting her testimony regarding cardiovascular impairments, depression and anxiety, back impairments, and obesity. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's evaluation at step four of the decision is clearly articulated and supported by substantial evidence.

         A. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “obesity; congenital heart disease; history of mechanical mitral valve replacement (MVR); hypertension; history of transient ischemic attack (TIA); history of chronic back pain; and history of asthma.” (Tr. 20 (internal citation omitted).) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 21.) At step four[3], the ALJ found, in relevant part, that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with limitations. [Plaintiff] can lift/carry up to 10 pounds frequently, 20 pounds occasionally; she can sit for two hours at a time, stand for 30 minutes at a time, and walk for 30 minutes at a time; she can sit for five hours total in an eight-hour workday and stand or walk for two hours total in an eight-hour workday; the [Plaintiff] can frequently use her bilateral upper extremities for reaching (overhead and in all directions), handling, fingering, feeling, and pushing/pulling; she is limited to no more than occasional postural activities (i.e., climbing, balancing, stooping, squatting, crouching, crawling, or kneeling); she must avoid unprotected heights; no more than frequent exposure to moving mechanical parts, operation of a motor vehicle, humidity, wetness, pulmonary irritants, extreme temperatures, and vibrations; and she is limited to moderate (office) noise level.

(Tr. 22.) In making this RFC determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of th[e] symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in th[e] decision.” (Tr. 27.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a companion sitter, customer service clerk, cashier, and telemarketer. (Tr. 30.) As such, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period. (Id.)

         B. ...

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