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Felty v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2018

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

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          JAMES R. KLINDT United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Status

         Valarie Marie Felty (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('s)”) final decision denying her claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is a result of neck, back, and ankle injuries; depression; anxiety; and “[s]tress disorders.” Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 12; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed January 30, 2017, at 59, 68, 79, 93, 212 (emphasis omitted). On February 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset disability date of February 5, 2012. Tr. at 189 (DIB); Tr. at 191 (SSI).[2] Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, see Tr. at 59-67, 77 (DIB); Tr. at 68-76, 78 (SSI), and were denied upon reconsideration, see Tr. at 93-106, 107 (DIB); Tr. at 79-92, 108 (SSI).

         On January 20, 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 37-58. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was twenty-eight years old. See Tr. at 41. The ALJ issued a Decision on February 5, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 21-32.

         On September 21, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-3, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On November 21, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff raises the following issue: “Whether . . . the ALJ's review properly applied the governing regulations and whether . . . significant inaccuracies and omissions exist in the Commissioner's final Decision.” Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Position (Doc. No. 21; “Pl.'s Mem.” or “Plaintiff's memorandum”), filed May 23, 2017, at 1 (some capitalization omitted).[3] Specifically, in raising this issue, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in his assessment of the opinions of a number of Plaintiff's health providers, made some inaccurate statements, and omitted certain information. Pl.'s Mem. at 15-24.[4] On August 23, 2017, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 24; “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 reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [5] 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 23-31. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 5, 2012, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 23 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: disorders of the spine and ankle, anxiety disorder and affective disorder.” Tr. at 23 (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 23-24 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that [Plaintiff] can occasionally crawl, crouch, stoop, squat and bend. [Plaintiff] must avoid ladders, unprotected heights and the operation of moving machinery. [Plaintiff] is limited to performing simple, repetitive tasks in a low stress, non-production pace environment. [Plaintiff] is limited to lifting ten pounds. [Plaintiff] must avoid the push/pull of arm controls and the operation of foot controls.

Tr. at 25 (emphasis omitted).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” Tr. at 30 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“[twenty-six] years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform, ” including “[a]ssembler, small parts”; “[a]ddresser”; and “[t]able worker.” Tr. at 30-31. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from February 5, 2012, through the date of th[e Decision].” 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) and 1383(c)(3). 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

         The undersigned addresses Plaintiff's specific arguments in turn.

         A. ALJ's Assessment of Opinions

         1. Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's assessment of the opinions of Dr. Edgardo Galante, Dr. Umesh Mhatre, Ms. Hydee Vanterpool, Ms. Karen Klein, and Dr. David Yudell. See Pl.'s Mem. at 17, 20-24.[6] Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in failing to assign weight to Dr. Galante's opinion, id. at 21, and in failing to “appreciate the fact that Dr. Galante was a board[-]certified anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist who operated a pain management office . . ., ” id. at 17. According to Plaintiff, the “ALJ's failure to indicate the weight accorded to Dr. Galante's notes is significant because [he] recommended the same conservative measures . . . that had been provided by Dr. Joseph Shaughnessy[[7]] . . . along with the same diagnostic facet blocks and trigger point injections that would be administered (later) in Dr. Frank Collier's[[8]] office.” Id. at 21-22. With regard to the ALJ's assessment of Dr. Mhatre's opinion, Plaintiff asserts that the reason offered by the ALJ for assigning more weight to Dr. Mhatre's treatment notes than to the Medical Statement completed by Dr. Mhatre is not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 22. As to the opinions of Ms. Vanterpool and Ms. Klein, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in “summarily reject[ing]” them. Id. at 23. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in giving significant weight to Dr. Yudell's opinion because the ALJ was “simply wrong” when he stated that Dr. Yudell based his opinion on a “thorough review of [Plaintiff's] records.” Id. at 20; see Tr. at 29.

         Responding, Defendant asserts that any error in failing to assign weight to Dr. Galante's treatment notes is harmless because “Dr. Galante recommended conservative treatment measures, including therapies and blocks/injections, as did Dr. Shaughnessy and Dr. Collier.” Def.'s Mem. at 9. According to Defendant, “the ALJ in fact relied on Plaintiff's conservative treatment and its effectiveness i[n] determining Plaintiff's RFC.” Id. With regard to Dr. Mhatre's treatment notes, Defendant argues that the ALJ gave more weight to the physician's treatment notes than to the Medical Statement because the treatment notes “show[ ] a good response to conservative treatment.” Id. at 15. With regard to the opinions of Ms. Vanterpool and Ms. Klein, Defendant contends that “neither provider was an acceptable medical source, and therefore their opinions were not ‘medical opinions' within the meaning of the [R]egulations; and were not entitled to any weight.” Id. at 15-16 (citation omitted). Defendant asserts that while Plaintiff “had sporadic mental health treatment after [Dr. Yudell's examination], which of course, Dr. Yudell would not have considered, the ALJ did review this treatment history, and properly determined that Dr. Yudell's opinion was consistent with the evidence and entitled to significant weight.” Id. at 14.

         2. ...

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