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Brockus v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 17, 2019

BRET LEE BROCKUS, 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 applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Following an administrative hearing held on January 19, 2017, the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled from April 30, 2011, the alleged disability onset date, through August 21, 2017, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 12-25, 35-74.) Based on a review of the record, the briefs, and the applicable law, the Commissioner’s decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Standard

         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 that the court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s factual findings).

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not give legally sufficient reasons to reject the opinions of his pain management specialist, Dr. Scott Fuchs, from March 10 and March 21, 2016, and the opinions of his primary care physician, Dr. Francis Harrington, from July 31, 2014. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ’s credibility finding does not follow the Agency’s two-step analysis. The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence and proper legal analysis support the ALJ’s decision.

         A. The ALJ’s Decision

         At step two of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: congenital fusion of the thoracic spine with kyphosis, degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine, sciatica, and degenerative changes of the cervical spine. (Tr. 17.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 18.)

         The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, “except he [could] stand two hours in an eight-hour workday; walk one hour in an eight-hour workday; and stoop[] not more than rarely.” (Id.) In making this finding, the ALJ discussed Plaintiff’s complaints and daily activities, the treatment notes, the objective medical records, and the opinion evidence. (Tr. 18-23.)

         The ALJ addressed Plaintiff’s complaints as follows:

The claimant reported having difficulty standing or sitting for long periods. He stated it hurts to bend, squat, knee [sic] or reach. He alleges he could lift than [sic] 20 pounds and walk for ½ hour. He has trouble getting up from a squatting position. He can walk 1 ½ to 2 miles before needing to rest (Exhibit B4E).
. . . He indicated that he attempted to work in 2014, unloading trucks, but he could not continue due to pain. He stated that he worked part time, as a seasonal employee, for Target collecting carts, but at times, this would hurt his back or he would trip over a curb. He stated that he would leave work early or would miss full days, calling in 1-2 times a week, or he would be out of work for a week.
The claimant alleges pain in his whole back, neck and tailbone that radiates down his bilateral legs. He can lift and carry 10 pounds, sit 15-20 minutes, stand 15-20 minutes, and walk less than 1/4 of mile. He indicated that in an eight-hour workday, he could sit for two hours and walk about the same. He stated he could not stoop. He reported having daily pain, ranging 7-8/10 in severity, with medications. He uses a Fentanyl patch, which he changes every 3 days, and Percocet for pain. He indicated medications help to a point, but he experiences side effects including confusion, appetite changes, and mood swings.
. . . He helps with household chores, when he can. He does the dishes 2-3 times a week. He does not drive, but gets rides from his girlfriend or his mother. He takes public transportation 1-2 times a week, with difficulty. He shops with his girlfriend and uses a scooter when he is in the store.

(Tr. 19.)

         The ALJ found that although Plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, Plaintiff’s statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ explained:

The record reflects that, despite his allegations and impairments, the claimant has performed a generally normal range of functional abilities, which is inconsistent with a finding of disability. Information contained on an October 8, 2014 Function Report, indicates the claimant walks and rides his bike. He cooks, does laundry, waters the plants, and does some basic cleaning. He has no difficulty performing personal care. He goes outside every day. He goes out alone, shops in stores 3-4 times a month, and goes fishing once a month. He reads and watches TV almost every day with no problems. He talks on the phone, in person and on the computer daily (Exhibit B4E). He noted similar activities during his hearing.
Moreover, the claimant demonstrated no evidence of pain or discomfort while testifying at the hearing. While the hearing was short-lived and cannot be considered a conclusive indicator of the claimant’s overall level of pain on a day-to-day basis, the apparent lack of discomfort during the hearing is given some slight weight in reaching the conclusion regarding the credibility of the claimant’s allegations and the claimant’s [RFC]. Nonetheless, he did testify that he was on a Fentanyl patch and using Percocet for breakthrough pain.
Even if the claimant’s daily activities are truly as limited as alleged, it is difficult to attribute that degree of limitation to the claimant’s medical conditions, as opposed to other reasons, in view of the relatively benign medical evidence and other factors discussed in this decision. Of particular interest are the minimal findings on examinations. His treatment has been routine and conservative. He has not required inpatient, partial or urgent care for his medical issues. The record does not document any medication side effects that have not been remedied and the claimant did not testify that he experiences any current medication side effects. In addition, the medical evidence, and in particular, the ...

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