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Patey v. Saul

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

September 12, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]


         I. Status

         Richard Robert Patey (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('s)”) final decision denying his claims for disability income benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is the result of a severe back injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, high blood pressure, diabetes, and acid reflux. See Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 12; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed July 19, 2018, at 51, 62, 75, 88, 190. Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on March 20, 2012, [3] alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2011. Tr. at 170 (DIB); Tr. at 172 (SSI). The applications were denied initially, Tr. at 51-61, 73, 105, 107-11 (DIB); Tr. at 62-72, 74, 106, 112-17 (SSI), and upon reconsideration, Tr. at 75-87, 101, 104, 122-26, 133 (DIB); Tr. at 88-100, 102, 103, 127-31, 132 (SSI); see also Tr. at 215 (affirming opinion of physician who reviewed medical evidence at the reconsideration level).

         On December 16, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which he heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 31-50. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on January 29, 2014 (“2014 decision”), finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the decision. Tr. at 14-25, 1058-69 (duplicate).[4] The Appeals Council then accepted additional evidence in the form of a brief authored by Plaintiff's counsel. Tr. at 5, 6; see Tr. at 234-35 (brief). On June 26, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 1-4, thereby making the ALJ's 2014 decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff appealed the 2014 decision to this Court on August 27, 2015. See Tr. at 1103; see Complaint (Doc. No. 1), No. 3:15-cv-1062-J-39JBT.[5] On March 28, 2016, the Honorable Joel B. Toomey, United States Magistrate Judge, entered a Memorandum Order (“2016 Memorandum Order”) reversing and remanding the Commissioner's 2014 decision for further administrative proceedings based in part on the ALJ's failure to properly discuss and weigh the opinions of Dr. Hector Pagan, one of Plaintiff's treating physicians. Tr. at 1084-91. On March 29, 2016, Judgment was entered reversing and remanding the matter to the Commissioner. Tr. at 1082. Thereafter, the Appeals Council entered an Order on May 9, 2016 remanding the case to the ALJ. Tr. at 1093-95.

         On December 5, 2016, the same ALJ held another hearing, during which he heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was again represented by counsel, and a different VE. Tr. at 1038-54. On January 18, 2017, the ALJ issued a Decision finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 1014-31. The Appeals Council received additional information in the form of a brief authored by Plaintiff's counsel. Tr. at 1008, 1009; see Tr. at 1154-59 (brief). The Appeals Council, however, “found no reason . . . to assume jurisdiction, ” making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. at 1004; see Tr. at 1004-07. On May 16, 2018, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes the following argument: “The ALJ's evaluation of the treating physicians' opinions is contrary to [law], resulting in a legally deficient [residual functional capacity (‘RFC')] finding and ‘credibility' assessment.” Plaintiff's Memorandum - Social Security (Doc. No. 16; “Pl.'s Mem.”), filed September 19, 2018, at 1, 11 (emphasis and capitalization omitted). Specifically, Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Pagan's and Dr. Ronald Joseph's respective opinions. See Pl.'s Mem. at 12-18. On December 18, 2018, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. No. 19; “Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's argument regarding the medical opinions.[6] After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned determines that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be reversed and remanded because the ALJ erred in evaluating the treating physicians' opinions and Plaintiff's subjective complaints.

         On remand, a proper evaluation of the treating physicians' opinions and Plaintiff's subjective complaints may impact the ALJ's RFC determination. For this reason, the Court need not address that portion of Plaintiff's argument. See Jackson v. Bowen, 801 F.2d 1291, 1294 n.2 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (declining to address certain issues because they were likely to be reconsidered on remand); Demenech v. Sec'y of the Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 913 F.2d 882, 884 (11th Cir. 1990) (per curiam) (concluding that certain arguments need not be addressed when the case would be remanded on other issues).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [7] an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations (“Regulations”), determining as appropriate whether the claimant (1) is currently employed or engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one listed in the Regulations; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) retains the ability to perform any work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of persuasion through step four, and at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential inquiry. See Tr. at 1016-31.[8] At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2011, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 1016 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: left shoulder rotator cuff tear, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy, and depression.” Tr. at 1017 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Tr. at 1017 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)] with the following limitations: a 30-minute sit/stand option; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; no balancing; only occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no overhead reaching; and no more than frequent handling and fingering on both sides. [Plaintiff] should not have concentrated exposure to work around vibrations, work around moving mechanical parts, or work at unprotected heights. [Plaintiff] is limited to performing simple tasks with little variation that take a short period of time to learn (that is, up to and including 30 days) and jobs with a specific vocational preparation (SVP) level of 1 or 2. [Plaintiff] is able to deal with changes in a routine work setting. He could relate adequately with supervisors with occasional coworker and no general public contact.

Tr. at 1020 (emphasis omitted).

         At step four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that Plaintiff is “unable to perform any past relevant work.” Tr. at 1029 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age (“48 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ again relied on the testimony of the VE and found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform, ” Tr. at 1030 (emphasis and citation omitted), such as “Warehouse Checker”; “Assembler, Small Products”; and “Inspector, ” Tr. at 1031. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from October 1, 2011, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 1031 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision as to disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Although no deference is given to the ALJ's conclusions of law, findings of fact “are conclusive if . . . supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). “Substantial evidence is something ‘more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987)). The substantial evidence standard is met when there is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Falge, 150 F.3d at 1322 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence; rather, the entire record is reviewed to determine whether “the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). The decision reached by the Commissioner must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's analysis of the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Pagan and Dr. Joseph, as well as with the ALJ's evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. The undersigned addresses each issue in turn.[9]

         A. Treating Physicians' Opinions

         1. Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff contends that “the ALJ did not demonstrate that the opinions of Drs. Pagan and Joseph are inconsistent with or unsupported by the record.” Pl.'s Mem. at 16. Plaintiff argues that “[h]is pain levels have been rated as consistently high despite various medications, nerve blocks and surgery having been employed.” Id. at 17-18. Plaintiff asserts the ALJ incorrectly “rel[ied] upon his lay analysis of the raw medical data to reject the only treating physician's opinion[s] regarding Plaintiff's work-related limitations.” Id. at 18.

         Responding, Defendant contends that in discounting the opinions of Dr. Pagan and Dr. Joseph, “[t]he ALJ noted that objective findings occasionally revealed full extremity strength and normal extremity range of motion.” Def.'s Mem. at 8 (citations omitted). Defendant argues that “[t]he ALJ also noted that . . . another treating physician[ ] characterized Plaintiff's complaints as ‘moderate.'” Id. (citations omitted).

         2. Applicable Law

         The Regulations[10] establish a “hierarchy” among medical opinions[11] that provides a framework for determining the weight afforded each medical opinion: “[g]enerally, the opinions of examining physicians are given more weight than those of non-examining physicians[;] treating physicians[' opinions] are given more weight than [non-treating physicians;] and the opinions of specialists are given more weight on issues within the area of expertise than those of non-specialists.” McNamee v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 164 Fed.Appx. 919, 923 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1), (2), (5) (2006)). The following factors are relevant in determining the weight to be given to a physician's opinion: (1) the “[l]ength of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination”; (2) the “[n]ature and extent of [any] treatment relationship”; (3) ...

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