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Ambrose v. Berryhill

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

March 19, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          JAMES R. KLINDT United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Status

         Vincent W. Ambrose (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's final decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of a “lumbar back injury, ” “S/P[2] lumbar laminectomy, ” “S/P stent placement, ” coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea. Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 11; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed December 27, 2016, at 62-63, 72, 169 (emphasis and capitalization omitted). On February 25, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset disability date of June 2, 2013. Tr. at 144.[3] Plaintiff's application was denied initially, see Tr. at 62-70, 71, 88, 89-90, and was denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 72-85, 86, 93, 94-95.

         On September 10, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which he heard from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 37-61. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-three years old. Tr. at 39-40. The ALJ issued a Decision on October 5, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 14-31.

         The Appeals Council then received additional evidence consisting of medical records from treating physician Dr. Arkam Rehman dated November 4, 2014 to September 30, 2015. Tr. at 5; see Tr. at 534-74 (medical records). On August 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-4, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On October 3, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes two arguments. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly relied on Dr. Ashutosh Pradhan's opinion in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Rehman “that [Plaintiff] could not work due to failed back surgery and [Plaintiff's] pain and other symptoms” and in making the credibility finding. Plaintiff's Brief (Doc. No. 19; “Pl.'s Br.”), filed March 27, 2017, at 1, 13; see Pl.'s Br. at 9-12. In making this argument, Plaintiff also asserts that “[t]he ALJ's analysis of [Plaintiff's] pain and other symptoms was tainted by the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Pradhan's opinion . . . .” Id. at 13. Second, Plaintiff asserts that “[t]he Commissioner's finding that [Plaintiff] retains the residual functional capacity [(“RFC”)] to perform jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy is not supported by the [VE] testimony.” Id. at 1; see i d. at 13-15. On May 26, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 20; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's arguments. After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be affirmed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [4] an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (“Regulations”), determining as appropriate whether the claimant (1) is currently employed or engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in the Regulations; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four and, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 16-31. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 2, 2013, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 16 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with sciatica; cervical radiculitis; coronary artery disease (CAD), status post stent placement; hypertension; and obesity.” Tr. at 16 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff “does not have an 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. at 18 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except he needs a sit/stand option (needs to be able to sit or stand at his option, but can maintain [thirty]-minute increments/cycles to perform the tasks assigned); needs to avoid ladders or unprotected heights; needs to avoid the operation of heavy moving machinery; needs to avoid concentrated dust, fumes, or gases; occasionally bend, crouch, kneel, or stoop; needs to avoid squatting or crawling; needs to avoid the operation of foot controls; needs a monocane for ambulation; and has a [ten]-pound frequent and occasional weight limit.

Tr. at 18 (emphasis omitted). At step four, the ALJ relied on the VE testimony and found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” Tr. at 29 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“[fifty-one] years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ again relied on the testimony of the VE and found that Plaintiff “has acquired work skills from past relevant work that are transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” Tr. at 30 (emphasis and citation omitted); see Tr. at 30-31. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform the job of a cardiac monitor technician. Tr. at 31. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from June 2, 2013, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 31 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Although no deference is given to the ALJ's conclusions of law, findings of fact “are conclusive if . . . supported by ‘substantial evidence' . . . .” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). “Substantial evidence is something ‘more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987)). The substantial evidence standard is met when there is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Falge, 150 F.3d at 1322 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence; rather, the entire record is reviewed to determine whether “the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991) (internal quotation and citations omitted); see also McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         As noted, Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Pradhan's opinion to reject Dr. Rehman's opinion, the effect this reliance had on the ALJ's credibility issue, and the ALJ's five-step finding. See Pl.'s Br. at 9-15. These arguments, and the law applicable to each, are addressed in turn.

         A. Medical Opinions and Credibility Finding

         1. Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff argues that “[t]he ALJ erred in accepting Dr. Pradhan's interpretation of the severity of [Plaintiff's] lumbar spine condition over the opinion of Dr. Rehman.” Pl.'s Br. at 10. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Pradhan's opinion was improper because Dr. Pradhan's opinion “does not appear to have been based on a complete set of objective testing.” Id. at 10. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that “Dr. Pradhan never mentioned the 2013 EMG[ ] findings that corroborated [Plaintiff's] lower extremity pain and symptoms, ” while Dr. Rehman indicated that the “2013 EMG[ ] showed right L4 and L5 radiculopathy and predominantly motor polyneuropathy.” Id. Further, according to Plaintiff, Dr. Pradhan treated Plaintiff “a handful of times whereas Dr. Rehman continued to treat [Plaintiff] and ordered the lower extremity EMG[ ] testing that corroborated his opinions as far as failed surgery.” Id. Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Pradhan's opinion “tainted” the ALJ's credibility determination. Id. at 13.

         Responding, Defendant contends the ALJ properly discounted Dr. Rehman's opinion because Dr. Rehman “did not indicate his judgment about the nature and severity of Plaintiff's impairments and what he could do despite his impairments and only indicated that Plaintiff was precluded from working his current ‘occupation.'” Def.'s Mem. at 6 (citation omitted). With regard to Dr. Rehman's opinion that Plaintiff was totally disabled, Defendant argues that this opinion “was not entitled to any special significance” as it involves an issue reserved for the Commissioner. Id. at 6-7. Defendant further asserts that, as the ALJ indicated, Dr. Rehman's opinion was “inconsistent with the record as a whole.” Id. at 7. As to the ALJ's credibility determination, Defendant argues that the ...

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