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Chait v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

June 6, 2018

TODD J. CHAIT, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff 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).[1]

         I. Issues on Appeal[2]

         Plaintiff 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 credibility.

         II. Standard of Review

         The 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).[3] 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).

         The 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)).

         III. Discussion

         A. VA Rating

         Plaintiff 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[4] 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.

         In the 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[5] (“GAF”) of 56.[6] 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.

         The ALJ discussed the VA ratings and the weight given in her RFC determination:

The record includes a Rating Decision[] from the Department of Veterans Affairs dated February 9, 2011[7] 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).[8] 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 ...

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