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Belangia v. Saul

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

September 16, 2019

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

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]


         I. Status

         Regina S. Belangia (“Plaintiff”) is appealing the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA('s)”) final decision denying her claim for disability income benefits (“DIB”). Plaintiff's alleged inability to work is the result of acid reflux, "weight bearing joints," a vision impairment, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and depression. See Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 10; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed June 21, 2018, at 83-84, 94, 191 (emphasis omitted). Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on August 8, 2013, [3] alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2012. Tr. at 170. The application was denied initially, Tr. at 83-90, 92, 114-16, and upon reconsideration, Tr. at 93, 94-110, 111, 118-22.

         On January 11, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing, during which she heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. at 45-81. Plaintiff was fifty-one years old at the time of the hearing. See Tr. at 83 (indicating date of birth). The ALJ issued a Decision on February 24, 2016, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date last insured. Tr. at 25-37.

         Thereafter, Plaintiff requested review of the Decision by the Appeals Council. See Tr. at 19. The Appeals Council received additional evidence in the form of a brief authored by Plaintiff's counsel and medical records. Tr. at 8, 9; see Tr. at 246-47 (brief); Tr. at 404-05 (medical records). On April 25, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. at 4-7, thereby making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 18, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to reopen and change the Decision. Tr. at 2-3. On March 30, 2018, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by timely filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1), seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         On appeal, Plaintiff makes the following arguments: 1) "[t]he Commissioner failed to articulate good cause for not crediting the opinion of Dr. [Christopher] Potter, the treating neurologist, and further failed to understand the nature of myotonic dystrophy and its symptoms"; and 2) "[t]he Commissioner erred in assigning significant weight to the nonexamining physician, [Dr. Reuben Brigety], at reconsideration that was issued prior to the time that [Plaintiff] was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy." Plaintiff's Amended Brief (Doc. No. 18; "Pl.'s Br."), filed August 28, 2018, [4] at 1, 8, 18 (emphasis omitted); see Pl.'s Br. at 8-18 (first argument), 18-21 (second argument). On November 2, 2018, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner (“Def.'s Mem.”) addressing Plaintiff's arguments. After a thorough review of the entire record and consideration of the parties' respective memoranda, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's final decision is due to be affirmed.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         When determining whether an individual is disabled, [5] 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 27-37. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period of her alleged onset date of January 1, 2012 through her date last insured on June 30, 2014." Tr. at 27 (emphasis and citation omitted). The ALJ found at step two that Plaintiff “had the following severe impairments: myotonic dystrophy, anxiety disorder NOS, bilateral knee osteoarthritis ('OA'), fibromyalgia ('FM'), [and] depression NOS." Tr. at 27 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff Adid not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1." Tr. at 28 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

[Plaintiff could] perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except she was limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, or stairs. She was limited to occasional balancing. She could frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She had to avoid concentrated use of moving machinery and concentrated exposure to unprotected heights. Work was limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with only occasional interaction with the public and coworkers, and only occasional supervision.

Tr. at 29 (emphasis omitted).

         At step four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE and found that “[t]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to perform any past relevant work.” Tr. at 36 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiffs age (“49 years old . . . on the date last insured”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied again on the testimony of the VE and found that “[t]hrough the date last insured, . . . there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] could have performed, ” Tr. at 36 (emphasis and citation omitted), such as “Marker, ” “Sub Assembler, ” and “Mail Clerk, ” Tr. at 37. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was not under a disability . . . at any time from January 1, 2012, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2014, the date last insured.” Tr. at 37 (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). 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

         As noted, Plaintiff makes the following arguments: 1) the ALJ erred in evaluating Dr. Potter's opinion and failed to understand the nature of myotonic dystrophy; and 2) the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Brigety, the nonexamining physician who reviewed the evidence at the reconsideration level. The undersigned sets out the parties' arguments and the applicable law. Then, the issues raised are addressed.

         A. Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff first contends that “[t]he ALJ grossly oversimplified a very complicated medical condition and erroneously failed to articulate good cause for not accepting Dr. Potter's opinions as far as upper extremity limitations prior to [Plaintiff's] insured status expiring.” Pl.'s Br. at 17. According to Plaintiff, “Dr. Potter indicated and the medical literature also indicates that myotonic dystrophy is progressive.” Id. at 12. Plaintiff notes that “prior to [Plaintiff's] insured status expiring, Dr. Potter examined her on multiple occasions during which time he worked to determine the etiology of her symptoms.” Id. at 13. Plaintiff argues that “the ALJ's claim that her medical condition was satisfactorily managed has no basis in fact” because Plaintiff's “condition did not improve and will not ...

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