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Burdge v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

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

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]


         I. Status

         Julie Burdge (“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 a retinal tear, floaters in the right eye, “left eye tear and detachment, ” eye fatigue, chronic double vision, eye muscle pain, a pinched nerve in the neck, sleep apnea, elevated liver enzymes, high cholesterol, depression, and anxiety. See Transcript of Administrative Proceedings (Doc. No. 12; “Tr.” or “administrative transcript”), filed June 1, 2018, at 62-63, 74, 188 (capitalization and emphasis omitted). Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on November 24, 2015, [3] Tr. at 167, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2015, Tr. at 63, 74. The application was denied initially, Tr. at 62-71, 72, 89-91, and upon reconsideration, Tr. at 73-85, 86, 93-97.

         On February 21, 2017, 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 33-61. Plaintiff was fifty-two years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. at 36. The ALJ issued a Decision on June 14, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled through the date of the Decision. Tr. at 15-28.

         Thereafter, Plaintiff requested review of the Decision by the Appeals Council. Tr. at 166. The Appeals Council received additional evidence in the form of a brief authored by Plaintiff’s counsel. Tr. at 4, 5; see Tr. at 295-98 (brief). On February 28, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, Tr. at 1-3, thereby making the ALJ’s Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On March 27, 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 raises three issues: 1) “[w]hether the ALJ’s finding that the opinion of treating physician Dr. [Sarada] Penukonda is entitled to ‘limited weight’ is supported by substantial evidence and comports with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; SSR 96-2p”; 2) “[w]hether the ALJ’s assessment of Plaintiff’s credibility is supported by substantial evidence, as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)”; and 3) [w]hether the [residual functional capacity (‘RFC’)] adequately accounts for Plaintiff’s need for unscheduled breaks and driving limitations when viewed in conjunction with the record as a whole, as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).” Plaintiff’s Memorandum in Support of Complaint (Doc. No. 18; “Pl.’s Mem.”), filed July 13, 2018, at 8, 12, 15 (emphasis omitted). On October 1, 2018, Defendant filed a Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner’s Decision (Doc. No. 19; “Def.’s Mem.”) addressing the issues raised by Plaintiff. 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 for further administrative proceedings.

         On remand, a proper evaluation of Dr. Penukonda’s opinions and Plaintiff’s subjective complaints may impact the ALJ’s RFC determination. For this reason, the Court need not address Plaintiff’s third issue. 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, [4] 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 17-27. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2015, the alleged onset date.” Tr. at 17 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: history of retinal detachment with multiple vitrectomy procedures; history of cataract; history of greater occipital neuralgia; history of neck pain; and monocular vision.” Tr. at 18 (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 19 (emphasis and citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to “perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)] except she is limited to work that does not require binocular vision.” Tr. at 20 (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 26 (emphasis and citation omitted). At step five, after considering Plaintiff’s age (“51 years old . . . on the alleged disability onset date”), education (“at least a high school education”), work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied again 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 26 (emphasis and citation omitted), such as “sorter, ” “packer, ” and “cleaner, ” Tr. at 27. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from August 1, 2015, through the date of th[e D]ecision.” Tr. at 27 (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 above, Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ’s analysis of Dr. Penukonda’s opinions and the ALJ’s evaluation of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. The undersigned addresses each issue in turn.

         A. Dr. Penukonda’s Opinions

         1. Parties’ Arguments

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Penukonda’s opinions on the basis that “there were not adequate recent treatment notes from Dr. Penukonda to support the opinion.” Pl.’s Mem. at 9 (citation omitted). Plaintiff argues that in evaluating Dr. Penukonda’s opinions, “the ALJ did not perform the required analysis of considering the consistency of Dr. Penukonda’s opinion with the evidence as a whole.” Id. (citation omitted). According to Plaintiff, “[t]here is no evidence whatsoever from an examining source or from Plaintiff’s testimony to contradict Dr. Penukonda’s opinion.” Id. at 10.

         Responding, Defendant asserts that “[t]he ALJ properly gave little weight to Dr. Penukonda’s opinion regarding Plaintiff’s headaches and vision because Dr. Penukonda was an internist, Dr. Penukonda’s opinion was not accompanied by detailed medical evidence, he last treated Plaintiff two years prior to the date of h[er] opinion, and the opinion was inconsistent with medical evidence from the relevant period.” Def.’s Mem. at 5.

         2. Applicable Law

         The Regulations[5] establish a “hierarchy” among medical opinions[6] 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) “[s]upportability”; (4) “[c]onsistency” with other medical evidence in the record; and (5) “[s]pecialization.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(5), 416.927(c)(2)-(5); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(f), 416.927(f).

         With regard to a treating physician, [7] the Regulations instruct ALJs how to properly weigh such a medical opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Because treating physicians “are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant’s] medical impairment(s), ” a treating physician’s medical opinion is to be afforded controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence” in the record. Id. When a treating physician’s medical opinion is not due controlling weight, the ALJ must determine the appropriate weight it should be given by considering the factors identified above (the length of treatment, ...

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