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Hamill v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 23, 2019

DEBRA HAMILL, 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 her applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Following an administrative video hearing held on July 17, 2017, the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from March 5, 2014, the alleged disability onset date, through September 21, 2017, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 36-45.) 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 a remand is necessary because (1) the ALJ’s reasons for rejecting Plaintiff’s testimony about her pain were not supported by substantial evidence and (2) the record did not support the ALJ’s findings that Plaintiff’s anxiety and depression were non-severe impairments. Defendant responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s analysis at step two of the sequential evaluation process and that the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.

         A. Standard for Evaluating Opinion Evidence and Subjective Symptoms

         The ALJ is required to consider all the evidence in the record when making a disability determination. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(3), 416.920(a)(3). With regard to medical opinion evidence, “the ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). Substantial weight must be given to a treating physician’s opinion unless there is good cause to do otherwise. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).

         “‘[G]ood cause’ exists when the: (1) treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). When a treating physician’s opinion does not warrant controlling weight, the ALJ must nevertheless weigh the medical opinion based on: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) the medical evidence supporting the opinion, (4) consistency of the medical opinion with the record as a whole, (5) specialization in the medical issues at issue, and (6) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(6), 416.927(c)(2)-(6). “However, the ALJ is not required to explicitly address each of those factors. Rather, the ALJ must provide ‘good cause’ for rejecting a treating physician’s medical opinions.” Lawton v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 431 Fed.Appx. 830, 833 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam).

         Although a treating physician’s opinion is generally entitled to more weight than a consulting physician’s opinion, see Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 518 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam), 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2), “[t]he opinions of state agency physicians” can outweigh the contrary opinion of a treating physician if “that opinion has been properly discounted, ” Cooper v. Astrue, 2008 WL 649244, *3 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 10, 2008). Further, “the ALJ may reject any medical opinion if the evidence supports a contrary finding.” Wainwright v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 2007 WL 708971, *2 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2007) (per curiam); see also Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam) (same).

         “The ALJ is required to consider the opinions of non-examining state agency medical and psychological consultants because they ‘are highly qualified physicians and psychologists, who are also experts in Social Security disability evaluation.’” Milner v. Barnhart, 275 Fed.Appx. 947, 948 (11th Cir. 2008) (per curiam); see also SSR 96-6p (stating that the ALJ must treat the findings of State agency medical consultants as expert opinion evidence of non-examining sources). While the ALJ is not bound by the findings of non-examining physicians, the ALJ may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to them in his decision. SSR 96-6p.

         When a claimant seeks to establish disability through her own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms, the Eleventh Circuit’s three-part “pain standard” applies. Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). “If the ALJ decides not to credit such testimony, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Id.

The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.

Id.

         Once a claimant establishes that her pain is disabling through objective medical evidence from an acceptable medical source that shows a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a), “all evidence about the intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms must be considered in addition to the medical signs and laboratory findings in deciding the issue of disability, ” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561. See also SSR 16-3p[1] (stating that after the ALJ finds a medically determinable impairment exists, the ALJ must analyze “the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the individual’s symptoms” to determine “the extent to which an individual’s symptoms limit his or her ability to perform work-related activities”).

         As stated in SSR 16-3p:

In considering the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of an individual’s symptoms, [the ALJ must] examine the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual’s statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual’s case record. . . .
In evaluating an individual’s symptoms, it is not sufficient for our adjudicators to make a single, conclusory statement that “the individual’s statements about his or her symptoms have been considered” or that “the statements about the individual’s symptoms are (or are not) supported or consistent.” It is also not enough for our adjudicators simply to recite the factors described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms.[2] The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual’s symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual’s symptoms. . . .
In evaluating an individual’s symptoms, our adjudicators will not assess an individual’s overall character or truthfulness in the manner typically used during an adversarial court litigation. The focus of the evaluation of an individual’s symptoms should not be to determine whether he or she is a truthful person. Rather, our adjudicators will focus on whether the evidence establishes a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual’s symptoms and given the adjudicator’s evaluation of the ...

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