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Allen v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, M.D. Florida

June 14, 2018




         Virginia Allen (the “Claimant”) appeals to the District Court a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Doc. No. 1. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) committed reversible error by: 1) finding that Claimant's past relevant work included being a hairdresser; 2) applying improper legal standards to three medical opinions; 3) making a finding on Claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) that is not supported by substantial evidence; and 4) making a finding on Claimant's credibility that is not supported by substantial evidence. Doc. No. 26 at 21-23, 26-28, 31-34, 37-40. Claimant requests that the Commissioner's final decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 42-43. For the reasons stated below, it is ORDERED that the Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.


         On October 19, 2012, Claimant filed her SSI application. R. 15. On May 28, 2013, Claimant filed her DIB application. Id. Claimant alleges an onset date of December 1, 2010 for both applications, and she alleges disability due to rheumatoid arthritis and obesity. Id.; Doc. No. 26 at 1. Claimant's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ on January 3, 2014. R. 70; Doc. No. 26 at 1. On October 5, 2015, Claimant attended a hearing before the ALJ. R. 490-520. On January 15, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Claimant not disabled. R. 15-25. On March 17, 2016, Claimant requested review of the ALJ's decision. R. 10. On December 6, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request. R. 5-7. On February 6, 2017, Claimant filed this appeal. Doc. No. 1.


         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., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact and must include 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) (citations 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 and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The Court must take into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560. The District Court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n. 8 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations and quotations omitted).


         Weighing the opinions and findings of treating, examining, and non-examining physicians is an integral part in determining whether a claimant is disabled. In cases involving an ALJ's handling of medical opinions, “substantial-evidence review ... involves some intricacy.” Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 F. App'x. 929, 931 (11th Cir. 2013).[1] In Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176 (11th Cir. 2011), the Eleventh Circuit held that whenever a physician offers a statement reflecting judgments about the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, including symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis, what the claimant can still do despite his or her impairments, and the claimant's physical and mental restrictions, the statement is an opinion requiring the ALJ to state with particularity the weight given to it and the reasons therefor. Id. at 1178-79 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2); Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). “In the absence of such a statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and supported by substantial evidence.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (citations omitted). See also MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (finding that a failure to state with particularity the weight given to medical opinions and the reasons therefor constitutes reversible error). An ALJ may not “implicitly discount” or ignore any medical opinion. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178-79; MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053; McClurkin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 625 F. App'x. 960, 962-63 (11th Cir. 2015) (finding that it is reversible error for the ALJ to fail to state weight given to a non-examining physician's opinion). This Court has stated that “reversal is required where an ALJ fails to sufficiently articulate the reasons supporting his decision to reject portions of a medical opinion while accepting others.” Kahle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 845 F.Supp.2d 1262, 1272 (M.D. Fla. 2012).

         “The ALJ must state the grounds for his decision with clarity to enable [the court] to conduct meaningful review …. Absent such explanation, it is unclear whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's findings; and the decision does not provide a meaningful basis upon which [the court] can review [a claimant's] case.” Hanna v. Astrue, 395 Fed.Appx. 634, 636 (11th Cir. 2010). With regard to a claimant's RFC, this means that “the ALJ must link the RFC assessment to specific evidence in the record bearing upon the claimant's ability to perform the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work.” Salter v. Astrue, No. CA 11-00681-C, 2012 WL 3817791, at * 6 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 4, 2012). See also Ricks v. Astrue, No. 3:10-cv-975-TEM, 2012 WL 1020428, at * 9 (M.D. Fla. Mar, 27, 2012) (“An ALJ is required to build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.”). Thus, “the existence of substantial evidence in the record favorable to the Commissioner may not insulate the ALJ's determination from remand when he or she does not provide a sufficient rationale to link such evidence to the legal conclusions reached.” Russ v. Barnhart, 363 F.Supp.2d 1345, 1347 (M.D. Fla. 2005) (citing Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)).[2]

         IV. ANALYSIS

         On June 3, 2009, Claimant presented to Dr. James Ryan, a one-time examining physician. R. 266. In a treatment note, Dr. Ryan stated the following:

Arthritis Knee - This arthritis is mild to moderate at the present time. Based on her physical examination and findings, [Claimant] has no restrictions of the upper extremities, but due to the arthritis of the knees, would not be able to perform activities which would require prolonged walking or standing.

R. 268 (emphasis added). On February 23, 2010, Claimant presented to Dr. Nitin Hate, another one-time examining physician. R. 275. Dr. Hate completed a disability evaluation stating:

[Claimant] will have difficulty in any activities that require prolonged standing, walking, climbing stairs, repeated stooping, and any squatting. She needs ongoing medical care and life style ...

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