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Barnes v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 22, 2019

CYNTHIA ELIZABETH BARNES, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          SHERI POLSTER CHAPPELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is United States Magistrate Judge Patricia D. Barksdale's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that the Court affirm the Commissioner of Social Security's to deny Plaintiff Cynthia Elizabeth Barnes disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 27). Barnes objects to the R&R (Doc. 28), and the Commissioner filed a response (Doc. 29). The R&R is thus ripe for review.

         BACKGROUND

         The Court adopts the factual background detailed in the R&R. (Doc. 27 at 3-14). The procedural background is as follows. On July 11, 2014, Barnes applied for disability insurance benefits from June 1, 2005 (her alleged onset date), through March 31, 2008 (her date last insured). (Doc. 1; Doc. 13). After a hearing, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) J. Dennis Reap found that Barnes was not disabled during the relevant period and denied her application. (Doc. 15-2 at 8-23). The Appeals Council denied Barnes' request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 15-2 at 2). Barnes then filed this appeal. (Doc. 1).

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Review of the Magistrate Judge's Review and Recommendation

         In reviewing a report and recommendation, a district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). When a party makes specific objections to a magistrate judge's report, the district court engages in a de novo review of the issues raise. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         B. Review of the ALJ's Decision

         A court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. See Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). This review is de novo. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). “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) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997)). “[The Court] may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court finds the evidence more likely supports a different conclusion. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         DISCUSSION

         Barnes raises three objections to the R&R, offering no more than a reiteration of the arguments she made in her Memorandum (Doc. 22). In her first two arguments, Barnes challenges the evidentiary support of the ALJ's findings that Barnes' mental and physical impairments were not severe. In her third argument, Barnes accuses the ALJ of violating her due process rights by relying on an opinion absent from the record. Barnes repeats the same arguments in her objections to the R&R. (Doc. 28).

         After an independent review of the complete record and applicable case law, the Court finds the R&R to be well reasoned, thorough, and legally sound. And because Barnes' objections are mere restatements of the arguments Judge Barksdale considered and rejected, the Court will address them only briefly here.

         Barnes summarizes her first objection: “In failing to find Plaintiff's mental impairments severe and in giving no weight to Dr. Alsamman's and Dr. Nandigam's retrospective opinions, the ALJ issued a decision unsupported by substantial evidence.” (Doc. 28 at 6). An ALJ can disregard a physician's opinion, so long as the ALJ articulates good cause to do so. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1180. Here, the ALJ did state good cause to disregard the opinions of Drs. Alsamman and Nandigman: “they did not see or treat her” during the relevant period, “they offered no meaningful explanation of how the medical history at or near the date last insured supported their assessments, ” and “[t]heir assessments are inconsistent with the medical evidence in the record in the nearly two years before the date last insured and the year thereafter.” (Doc. 15-2 at 21). Both the ALJ and Judge Barksdale found that without retrospective opinions of Dr. Alsamman and Dr. Nandigman, evidence of severe mental impairments during the relevant period “is scant.” (Doc. 27 at 16). The Court agrees.

         Barnes challenges the ALJ's physical-impairment findings on two primary fronts. First, Barnes argues the ALJ erred by giving great weight to the conclusions of Dr. Rowley but rejecting her opinion on the severity of Barnes' osteoarthritis and allied disorders without explaining why. (Doc. 28 at 6). But as Judge Barksdale points out, the ALJ identified Dr. Rowley as a psychological consultant, not a medical doctor, so the ALJ was free to accept her psychological opinions but not her medical opinions. (Doc. 27 at 24). Second, Barnes argues that the ALJ's failure to make a determination about an impairment of fibromyalgia violated SSR ...


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