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Gray v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 20, 2019

TANYA MARIE GRAY, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

          LESLIE R. HOFFMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Tanya Gray (Claimant) appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's (Commissioner) final decision denying her application for disability benefits. (Doc. 1). The Claimant raises several arguments challenging the Commissioner's final decision and, based on those arguments, requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. (Doc. 21 at 22-29, 36-38, 42). The Commissioner argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) committed no legal error and that her decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. (Id. at 30-36, 38-42). Upon review of the record, the Court finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History

         This case stems from the Claimant's application for disability insurance benefits. (R. 386-87). The Claimant alleged a disability onset date of October 10, 2014. (R. 386). The Claimant's application was denied on initial review and on reconsideration. The matter then proceeded to a hearing before an ALJ. On January 4, 2018, the ALJ entered a decision denying the Claimant's application for disability benefits. (R. 23-33). The Claimant requested review of the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. 1-4). This appeal followed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ determined that the Claimant had engaged in substantial gainful activity. Second, the ALJ found that the Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: Sjogren's syndrome;[1] fibromyalgia; periarthritis of the right shoulder; pulmonary fibrosis; and asthma, as well as the non-severe impairment of sinusitis. (R. 26). Third, the ALJ determined that none of the foregoing impairments, individually or in combination, met or medically equaled any listed impairment. (R. 26-27).

         Fourth, the ALJ found that the Claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)[2] with the following additional limitations:

She can push and pull the same weights as she can lift and carry occasionally; and can reach overhead with the right arm occasionally and frequently in all other directions. She can frequently handle, finger, and feel. She can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can frequently balance. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She is limited to occasional exposure to unprotected heights; moving mechanical parts; humidity/wetness; dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants; extreme cold; extreme heat; and vibrating surfaces and tools. She needs regular and customary work breaks every 2 hours.

(R. 27). The ALJ also found that the Claimant's RFC allowed her to perform her past relevant work as a "printed circuit board assembler hand." (R. 32). Because the ALJ determined that the Claimant had the RFC to perform her past relevant work, the ALJ did not proceed to the fifth and final step of the evaluation process. Rather, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant was not disabled between her alleged onset date, October 10, 2014, through the date of the ALJ's decision, January 4, 2018. (Id.).

         III. Standard of Re view

         The scope of the Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is defined as "more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision, when determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). The Court may not reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, and, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the reviewing court must affirm it if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         IV. Analysis

         The Claimant raises two assignments of error: 1) the ALJ's decision to assign Dr. Hector Ramirez's, Dr. Raymond Baez's, and Dr. Paul Lombardi D.C.'s opinions little weight was not supported by substantial evidence; and 2) the ALJ erred in finding the Claimant's testimony concerning her pain and limitations not entirely credible. (Doc. 21 at 22-29, 36-38). The Court will address each assignment of error in turn.

         A. The Opinion Evidence

         The Claimant's first assignment of error focuses on the weight the ALJ assigned to Dr. Baez's, Dr. Ramirez's, and Dr. Lombardi's opinions. (Doc. 21 at 22-29). The Court finds this assignment of error unavailing.

         The ALJ is tasked with assessing a claimant's RFC and ability to perform past relevant work. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (11th Cir. 2004). The RFC "is an assessment, based upon all of the relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments." Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440. In determining a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must consider all relevant evidence, including the medical opinions of treating, examining and non-examining medical sources, as well as the opinions of other sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3); see also Rosario v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 490 Fed.Appx. 192, 194 (11th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ must consider a number of factors in determining how much weight to give each medical opinion, including: 1) whether the physician has examined the claimant; 2) the length, nature, and extent of the physician's relationship with the claimant; 3) the medical evidence and explanation supporting the physician's opinion; 4) how consistent the physician's opinion is with the record as a whole; and 5) the physician's specialization. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         A treating physician's opinion must be given controlling weight, unless good cause is shown to the contrary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (giving controlling weight to the treating physician's opinion unless it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence); see also Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. There is good cause to assign a treating physician's opinion less than controlling weight where: 1) the treating physician's opinion is not bolstered by the evidence; 2) the evidence supports a contrary finding; or 3) the treating physician's opinion is conclusory or inconsistent with the physician's own medical records. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179.

         The ALJ must state the weight assigned to each medical opinion, and articulate the reasons supporting the weight assigned. Id. The failure to state the weight with particularity or articulate the reasons in support of the assigned weight prohibits the Court from determining whether the ALJ's ultimate decision is rational and supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         1. Dr. Baez

         The Claimant argues that each of the ALJ's reasons for assigning little weight to Dr. Baez's opinions are not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 21 at 23-24). The Commissioner, on the other hand, argues that the ALJ's decision with respect to Dr. Baez's opinions is supported by substantial evidence. (Id. 31-33).

         The Claimant began treating with Dr. Baez, a primary care physician, sometime prior to the alleged disability onset date. (See R. 564-65). The record, however, does not contain any treatment records from Dr. Baez dated between the alleged disability onset date, October 10, 2014, through the date of Dr. Baez's first opinion during the relevant period, January 30, 2015. In that opinion, Dr. Baez simply opined that the Claimant is "currently unable to work due to her medical conditions," which, at that time, included Sjogren's syndrome, dyspnea, [3] pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic back pain. (R. 503).

         On March 6, 2015, Dr. Baez completed a questionnaire regarding the functional limitations caused by the Claimant's impairments. (R. 530-33). Dr. Baez opined that the Claimant has a limited ability to lift and carry objects, but he did not specify how much weight the Claimant could lift and carry. (R. 530-31). Dr. Baez also opined that the Claimant can sit for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday; stand for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday; walk for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday; never climb, crouch, or crawl; occasionally kneel; frequently balance and stoop; and is limited in her ability to reach, push, and pull.[4] (R. 531-32). Dr. Baez attributed the foregoing limitations to the Claimant's joint pain. (R. 530-33).

         The Claimant continued to treat with Dr. Baez following his March 6, 2015 opinion. (R. 830-908). For a period of nearly two years, the Claimant only reported muscle and joint pain on a few occasions, (R. 866, 887, 903, 907), and her physical examinations were routinely unremarkable. (R. 835, 840-41, 845-46, 850-51, 856, 861, 867, 877, 883, 887, 892, 896. 900, 904, 907-08).[5]

         On July 24, 2017, Dr. Baez completed a second questionnaire regarding the functional limitations caused by the Claimant's impairments. (R. 1044-46). Dr. Baez opined that the Claimant can frequently lift and carry no more than 5 pounds; sit for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday; stand for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday; walk for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday; never crouch, kneel, or crawl; occasionally climb, balance, and stoop; and is limited in her ability to reach, push, and pull.[6] (R. 1044-45). Dr. Baez attributed the foregoing limitations to the Claimant's Sjogren's syndrome and fibromyalgia. (Id.).

         The ALJ considered each of Dr. Baez's opinions and collectively assigned them little weight for the following reasons:

They are not supported by the claimant's subjective statements to providers, which noted generally improved and mild pain with treatment. They are also inconsistent with the objective clinical signs and findings, showing generally controlled inflammatory markers and only mild tenderness and limited bending of the back and neck, but intact range of motion, strength, gait, and function on examination. (see Exs. 5F, 14F, 17F, 20F, 26F, 30F).

(R. 31).

         The ALJ's first reason for assigning little weight to Dr. Baez's opinions focuses on the inconsistency between the Claimant's reports of pain and Dr. Baez's opinions. (R. 31). This reason, if supported by substantial evidence, is good cause to assign Dr. Baez's opinions less than controlling weight. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. The Claimant, however, argues that the ALJ "mischaracterized" the record as showing that her pain improved overtime. (Doc. 21 at 24). The Claimant points to Dr. Baez's opinions, his referral of the Claimant to the Cleveland Clinic, and an opinion from the ...


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