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Reinert v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 13, 2019

DANIEL REINERT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [[1]]

          MONTE C. RICHARDSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of an administrative decision denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Following an administrative hearing held on February 23, 2017, the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled from September 13, 2014, the alleged amended disability onset date, through April 20, 2017, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 12-73.) Based on a review of the record, the briefs, and the applicable law, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, McRoberts v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 1077, 1080 (11th Cir. 1988), and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991); Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1358 (11th Cir. 1991). The district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995); accord 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 Commissioner's factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by discounting Plaintiff's need for a cane, by substituting her opinion for Dr. Warren Groff's opinion regarding the need for a cane, and by improperly excluding the need for a cane from the hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”). Plaintiff urges the Court to “remand this case for an additional hearing to evaluate the need for a cane and the vocational impact of the need for a cane.” (Doc. 13 at 10.) Defendant responds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and her decision is supported by substantial evidence. The Court finds that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, remands the case for further proceedings.

         A. Standard for Evaluating Opinion Evidence and Subjective Symptoms

         The ALJ is required to consider all the evidence in the record when making a disability determination. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(3). With regard to medical opinion evidence, “the ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). Substantial weight must be given to a treating physician's opinion unless there is good cause to do otherwise. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).

         “‘[G]ood cause' exists when the: (1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). When a treating physician's opinion does not warrant controlling weight, the ALJ must nevertheless weigh the medical opinion based on: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) the medical evidence supporting the opinion, (4) consistency of the medical opinion with the record as a whole, (5) specialization in the medical issues at issue, and (6) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6).

         Although a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than a consulting physician's opinion, see Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 518 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam), 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2), “[t]he opinions of state agency physicians” can outweigh the contrary opinion of a treating physician if “that opinion has been properly discounted, ” Cooper v. Astrue, No. 8:06-cv-1863-T-27TGW, 2008 WL 649244, *3 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 10, 2008). Further, “the ALJ may reject any medical opinion if the evidence supports a contrary finding.” Wainwright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 06-15638, 2007 WL 708971, *2 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2007) (per curiam). See also Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam) (same).

         “The ALJ is required to consider the opinions of non-examining state agency medical and psychological consultants because they ‘are highly qualified physicians and psychologists, who are also experts in Social Security disability evaluation.'” Milner v. Barnhart, 275 Fed.Appx. 947, 948 (11th Cir. May 2, 2008) (per curiam); see also SSR 96-6p (stating that the ALJ must treat the findings of State agency medical consultants as expert opinion evidence of non-examining sources). While the ALJ is not bound by the findings of non-examining physicians, the ALJ may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to them in his decision. SSR 96-6p.

         When a claimant seeks to establish disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms, the Eleventh Circuit's three-part “pain standard” applies. Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). “If the ALJ decides not to credit such testimony, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Id.

The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.

Id.

         Once a claimant establishes that his pain is disabling through “objective medical evidence from an acceptable medical source that shows a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a), “all evidence about the intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms must be considered in addition to the medical signs and laboratory findings in deciding the issue of disability, ” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561. See also SSR 16-3p[3] (stating that after the ALJ finds a medically determinable impairment exists, the ALJ must analyze “the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the individual's symptoms” to determine “the extent to which an individual's symptoms limit his or her ability to perform work-related activities”).

In considering the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of an individual's symptoms, [the ALJ must] examine the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record. . . .
In evaluating an individual's symptoms, it is not sufficient for our adjudicators to make a single, conclusory statement that “the individual's statements about his or her symptoms have been considered” or that “the statements about the individual's symptoms are (or are not) supported or consistent.” It is also not enough for our adjudicators simply to recite the factors described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms.[4] The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms. . . .
In evaluating an individual's symptoms, our adjudicators will not assess an individual's overall character or truthfulness in the manner typically used during an adversarial court litigation. The focus of the evaluation of an individual's symptoms should not be to determine whether he or she is a truthful person. Rather, our adjudicators will focus on whether the evidence establishes a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's symptoms and given the adjudicator's evaluation of the individual's symptoms, whether the intensity and persistence of the symptoms limit the individual's ability to perform work-related activities[.]

SSR 16-3p.

         “[A]n individual's attempts to seek medical treatment for symptoms and to follow treatment once it is prescribed” will also be considered “when evaluating whether symptom intensity and persistence affect the ability to perform work-related activities.” Id. “[I]f the frequency or extent of the treatment sought by an individual is not comparable with the degree of the individual's subjective complaints, or if the individual fails to follow prescribed treatment that might improve symptoms, [the adjudicator] may find the alleged intensity and persistence of an individual's symptoms are inconsistent with the overall evidence of record.” Id. However, the adjudicator “will not find an individual's symptoms inconsistent with the evidence in the record on this basis without considering possible reasons he or she may not comply with treatment or seek treatment consistent with the degree of his or her complaints.” Id. In considering an individual's treatment history, the adjudicator may consider, inter alia, one or more of the following:

• That the individual may have structured his or her activities to minimize symptoms to a tolerable level by avoiding physical activities or mental stressors that aggravate his or her stressors;
• That the individual may receive periodic treatment or evaluation for refills of medications because his or her symptoms have reached a plateau;
• That the individual may not agree to take prescription medications because the side effects are less tolerable than the symptoms;
• That the individual may not be able to afford treatment and may not have access to free or low-cost medical services;
• That a medical source may have advised the individual that there is no further effective treatment to prescribe or recommend that would benefit the individual;
• That due to various limitations (such as language or mental limitations), the individual may not understand the appropriate treatment for or the need for consistent treatment.

Id.

         B. The ...


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