United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division
TODD J. CHAIT, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MIRANDO, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Todd J. Chait seeks judicial review of the denial of his
claim for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”) by the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”).
In a decision dated February 25, 2016, the Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff had not been
under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from December 31, 2010, the amended alleged onset date,
through December 31, 2013, the date last insured. Tr. 18-31.
The Court has reviewed the record, the joint memorandum and
the applicable law. For the reasons discussed herein, the
decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED,
and this matter is REMANDED pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Issues on Appeal
raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether the ALJ properly
assessed the disability finding of the Department of Veterans
Affairs (“VA”); (2) whether the ALJ's
assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) as to his mental impairments is supported
by substantial evidence; and (3) whether substantial evidence
supports the ALJ's findings regarding Plaintiff's
Standard of Review
scope of this Court's review is limited to determining
whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and
whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence.
Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176,
1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted). The
Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if
supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a
scintilla, i.e., evidence that must do more than
create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be
established, and such relevant evidence as a reasonable
person would accept as adequate to support the
conclusion.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553,
1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (internal citations omitted).
Eleventh Circuit has restated that “[i]n determining
whether substantial evidence supports a decision, we give
great deference to the ALJ's factfindings.”
Hunter v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 808 F.3d
818, 822 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). 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 or found that the preponderance of the evidence is
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); cf. 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 factual
findings). The Court reviews the Commissioner's
conclusions of law under a de novo standard of
review. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin.,
496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Martin v.
Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
first argues the ALJ erred by assigning little weight to the
100% service-connected VA disability rating. Doc. 15 at
12-14. Plaintiff contends the ALJ did not consider
Plaintiff's total disability award based on his inability
to follow a substantially gainful occupation under 38 C.F.R.
§ 4.16, and instead erroneously only considered the
schedule percentage ratings assigned by the VA. Id.
at 12. Plaintiff further argues the ALJ's finding that
the VA rating decision is inconsistent with other
evidence is overly vague. Id. at 13. The
Commissioner responds that the ALJ carefully considered the
VA's disability rating, including his entitlement to
individual unemployability and gave the VA rating little
weight. Id. at 14-15. She contends the ALJ
articulated the reasoning for doing so, based not only on the
VA's use of a different standard but also because the
disability determination is reserved to the Commissioner and
the VA rating decision was specifically inconsistent with
objective medical evidence and opinions in the record.
Id. at 15-17. The Commissioner argues the ALJ does
not have to specifically refer to every piece of evidence but
did consider all the VA records and the disability decisions
even if the ALJ did not mention every determination contained
within the VA rating decision. Id. at 18-19.
decision dated July 22, 2011, the VA certified that Plaintiff
is an “honorably discharged veteran of the Navy and has
service-connected disability evaluated at 100 percent.”
Tr. 777-78. The report was an update of one provided in
December 2010 based on Plaintiff's new claim filed on
February 8, 2011. Tr. 778. The rating included a 50% rating
for panic disorder with agoraphobia and a 10% rating for
degenerative disc disease. Id. The decision
discussed the relevant medical records for each of these
evaluations. Tr. 779-81. With respect to the reasons for the
VA rating of 50% for panic disorder, the impairment at issue
here, the decision discussed the medical evidence and
records. Tr. 779-80. It noted there was no mention of panic
disorder with agoraphobia in the medical evidence received
from Florida Heart Associates. Tr. 779. Further, it stated
that a review of records at VA medical facilities in
Plaintiff's geographical area showed Plaintiff had not
sought treatment at any of them. Id. The report
discussed a February 22, 2011 record from Bay Pines VA
Medical Center in which Plaintiff reported recurrent panic
attacks lasting between one and fifteen minutes three times
weekly and his persistent worry about having them.
Id. The examiner noted Plaintiff was clean, neatly
groomed, appropriately dressed, friendly, relaxed and
attentive. Id. Plaintiff's speech and thought
process were unremarkable, his affect was normal and his mood
was anxious. Id. Plaintiff was not delusional, had
good impulse control and no episodes of violence.
Id. The examiner noted Plaintiff was able to manage
his financial affairs. Id. He assessed Plaintiff
with a Global Assessment of Function (“GAF”) of
Id. Based on these records, the VA gave Plaintiff a
50% disability rating for his service-connected panic
disorder with agoraphobia based on “occupational and
social impairment with reduced reliability and productivity
(as shown upon examination), difficulty in establishing and
maintaining effective work and social relationships and panic
attacks more than once a week.” Id.
discussed the VA ratings and the weight given in her RFC
The record includes a Rating Decision from the Department
of Veterans Affairs dated February 9, 2011 that the claimant
has service- connected disability evaluated at 100 percent
(Ex. 5F at 2). The record also contains another Rating
Decision, with disability at 50% due to panic disorder, 50%
due to sleep apnea, 10% due to tinnitus, and 10% due to
degenerative arthritis (Ex. 23F at 41). I note that the
standards used by the Department of Veterans Affairs in
determining disability are completely different that [sic]
those used by the Social Security Administration; therefore,
I am not bound by the findings set forth in the
claimant's Rating Decision (20 CFR 404.1504 and 416.904;
SSR 06-03p). Furthermore, I note that an opinion on whether
an individual is disabled goes to an issue reserved to the
Commissioner and therefore cannot be given special
significance; however, such opinions should still be
considered in the assessment of the claimant's residual
functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1527(e) and 416.927(e); SSR
96-5p). With this in mind, I have fully considered the
findings contained within the Rating Decision, including the
determination of the claimant's disability rating.
However, I gave little weight to such determination due to
its inconsistency with the objective medical evidence and the
other opinion evidence of record, which rely on standards
used by the Social Security Administration.
Tr. 27 (emphasis added). The ALJ continued to discuss
specific medical records from the VA and other medical
providers and experts in her RFC analysis, including the