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Naberhaus v. Saul

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

September 20, 2019

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


          HONORABLE CHRISTOPHER P. TUTTE, United States Magistrate Judge.

         The Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner’s denial of her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.


         The Plaintiff was born in 1967, completed high school, and has past relevant work experience as a resource teacher, model home designer, showroom designer, and customer service representative. (R. 26, 364, 415). In April 2012, the Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability as of May 2, 2009, due to anxiety, neuropathy, tarsal tunnel syndrome, and back, leg, and upper body issues stemming from an accident at work. (R. 364-65, 414). The Social Security Administration denied the Plaintiff’s application both initially and on reconsideration. (R. 160-73).

         At the Plaintiff’s request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on June 12, 2014. (R. 69-149). Following that hearing, the ALJ issued a decision in September 2014 finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 174-98). Upon review, however, the Appeals Council remanded the Plaintiff’s claim for further consideration. (R. 199).

         The ALJ held a new hearing on the matter on November 15, 2016. (R. 34-68). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on her own behalf. (R. 36-63). A vocational expert (VE) also testified. (R. 63-68).

         In a decision dated December 12, 2016, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) was insured through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of May 2, 2009; (2) had the severe impairments of obesity, Meniere’s disease, tarsal tunnel syndrome, early degenerative disc disease of the shoulder, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with spondylosis, and status post right shoulder arthroscopic surgery; (3) did not, however, have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments; (4) had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than the full range of sedentary work subject to certain limitations, including lifting and carrying ten pounds occasionally and reaching frequently but never overhead; and (5) based in part on the VE’s testimony, could not engage in her past relevant work but was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 10-26). In light of these findings, the ALJ again concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. Id.

         The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review. (R. 1-6). Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The Social Security Act (the Act) defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).[2] A physical or mental impairment under the Act “results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Social Security Regulations (Regulations) prescribe “a five-step, sequential evaluation process.” Carter v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 726 Fed.Appx. 737, 739 (11th Cir. 2018) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)).[3]Under this process, an ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is performing substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has a severe impairment that meets or equals an impairment specifically listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) has the RFC to perform past relevant work; and (5) can perform other work in the national economy given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. (citing Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). While the claimant has the burden of proof through step four, the burden temporarily shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Sampson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 694 Fed.Appx. 727, 734 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999)). If the Commissioner carries that burden, the claimant must then prove that she cannot perform the work identified by the Commissioner. Id. In the end, “the overall burden of demonstrating the existence of a disability . . . rests with the claimant.” Washington v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1280 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         A claimant who does not prevail at the administrative level may seek judicial review in federal court provided that the Commissioner has issued a final decision on the matter after a hearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Id.; Hargress v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm’r, 883 F.3d 1302, 1305 n.2 (11th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hargress, 883 F.3d at 1305 n.2 (quoting Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). In evaluating whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, the Court “may not decide the facts anew, make credibility determinations, or re-weigh the evidence.” Carter, 726 Fed.Appx. at 739 (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)). “[W]hile the court accords deference to the Commissioner’s factual findings, no such deference is given to [his] legal conclusions.” Keel-Desensi v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 1417326, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 29, 2019) (citations omitted).


         The Plaintiff raises three arguments on appeal: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate certain medical opinions; (2) the ALJ’s RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ engaged in “sit and squirm” jurisprudence.[4]

         Each of these arguments is addressed in turn below.

         A. Medical Opinions

         In assessing an individual’s disability claim, an ALJ “must consider all medical opinions in a claimant’s case record, together with other relevant evidence.” McClurkin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 625 Fed.Appx. 960, 962 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b)). “‘Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the claimant’s] impairment(s), including [the claimant’s] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite [her] impairment(s), and [the claimant’s] physical or mental restrictions.’” Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178-79 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2)). If a doctor’s statement rises to the level of a “medical opinion, ” an ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to that opinion and the reasons therefor. Id. at 1179. In rendering this determination, the ALJ must consider: (1) whether the doctor has examined the claimant; (2) the length, nature, and extent of the doctor’s relationship with the claimant; (3) the medical evidence and explanation supporting the doctor’s opinion; (4) how consistent the doctor’s opinion is with the record as a whole; and (5) the doctor’s area of specialization. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). While the ALJ is required to consider each of these factors, it is not mandatory that she explicitly address them in her decision. Lawton v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 431 Fed.Appx. 830, 833 (11th Cir. 2011).

         The Regulations set forth three tiers of sources for medical opinions: (1) treating physicians; (2) non-treating, examining physicians; and (3) non-treating, non-examining physicians. Himes v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 585 Fed.Appx. 758, 762 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2), (c)(1)-(2)).

         Typically, the ALJ must afford the opinions of a treating physician substantial or considerable weight unless “good cause” is shown to the contrary. Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159. Good cause exists where: (1) the treating physician’s opinion is inconsistent with the record evidence; (2) the record evidence supports a conflicting finding; or (3) the treating physician’s opinion is conclusory or incompatible with the physician’s own medical records. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240-41; Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159. In addition, this Circuit has held that a treating physician’s opinion is not entitled to great weight where the ...

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