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Brooks v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 26, 2018

TICA N. BROOKS, Plaintiff,



         Tica Brooks (the “Claimant”) appeals to the District Court a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Doc. No. 1. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) committed reversible error by: 1) applying improper legal standards to three medical opinions from Claimant's treating physicians; and 2) rejecting the opinions of Claimant's treating physicians while finding the opinions of state agency medical consultants to be supported by the record. Doc. No. 19 at 25-33. Claimant requests that the Commissioner's final decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 39. For the reasons stated below, it is ORDERED that the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED.


         On August 30, 2012, Claimant filed her DIB application alleging an onset date of November 20, 2010. R. 36. Claimant alleges disability due to a brain tumor, depression, neuropathy, headaches, low back pain, neck pain, seizures, shoulder pain, obesity, insomnia, traumatic brain injury, scoliosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. R. 307. Claimant's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ on May 18, 2013. R. 175. On April 22, 2015, Claimant attended a hearing before the ALJ. R. 63-102. On June 2, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Claimant not disabled. R. 36-52. On July 27, 2015, Claimant requested review of the ALJ's decision. R. 27. On December 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request. R. 1-7. On February 23, 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).

         Absent good cause, the opinion of a treating physician must be given substantial weight. Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 703 (11th Cir. 1988). Good cause exists to give a treating physician's opinion less than substantial weight when the opinion is not bolstered by the evidence, the evidence supports a contrary finding, or the opinion is conclusory or inconsistent with the physician's medical records. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Dr. Gates

         On February 18, 2013, Dr. Todd Gates, a treating physician, completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire. R. 868-74. Dr. Gates diagnosed Claimant with organic mood disorder, organic personality disorder, pituitary adenoma seizure disorder, recurrent major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. R. 868. Dr. Gates found that Claimant exhibited drowsiness, tremors, very poor concentration, low energy, chronic headaches, and suicidal preoccupation. Id.

         Dr. Gates then found that Claimant was either unable to meet competitive standards or has no useful ability to function in a number of areas including: remembering work-like procedures; understanding, remembering, and carrying out very short and simple instructions; maintaining attention for two hour segments; making simple work-related decisions; completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; interacting appropriately with the general public; and maintaining socially appropriate behavior.[2] R. 870-71. Dr. Gates also found that Claimant has a low IQ or reduced intellectual functioning due to head trauma and found that Claimant has complications of persistent headaches arising from such trauma. R. 871.

         In another portion of the questionnaire, Dr. Gates found the following: Claimant has marked limitations in activities of daily living and maintaining social functioning. R. 872. Claimant has extreme limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace and has had four or more episodes of decompensation within a twelve-month period, with each episode lasting at least two weeks. Id. Claimant has a current history of one or more years' inability to function outside of a highly supportive living arrangement with an indication of continued need for such arrangement. Id. Claimant has an anxiety-related disorder and a complete inability to function independently outside the area of her home. Id. Claimant will either be absent from work or unable to complete an eight-hour work day for five or more days per month due to her impairments and/or need for ongoing medical treatment. R. 873.

         At step three, the ALJ rejected the portion of Dr. Gates' opinion regarding Claimant's limitations on her activities of daily living, social functioning, maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and episodes of decompensation.[3] R. 42. Specifically, the ALJ found that Dr. Gates' findings were not supported by the record ...

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