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Padula v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

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


          ANTHONY E. PORCELLI, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). As the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision was based on substantial evidence and employed proper legal standards, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB (Tr. 148-49). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s claims both initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 62-73). Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing (Tr. 74-75). Per Plaintiff’s request, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified (Tr. 30-49). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and accordingly denied Plaintiff’s claims for benefits (Tr. 12-29). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied (Tr. 1-6, 146-47). Plaintiff then timely filed a complaint with this Court (Doc. 1). The case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         B. Factual Background and the ALJ’s Decision

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1959, claimed disability beginning January 22, 2014 (Tr. 148). Plaintiff obtained a high school education (Tr. 171). Plaintiff’s past relevant work experience included work as a hair stylist (Tr. 44–45, 171). Plaintiff alleged disability due to tennis elbow in both elbows, trigger finger in the right hand, and foot pain related to pulled tendons in both feet (Tr. 170).

         In rendering the administrative decision, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2019 and that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 22, 2014, the alleged onset date (Tr. 17). After conducting a hearing and reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lateral epicondylitis; trigger finger and thumb; carpal tunnel syndrome; minimal degenerative changes of the bilateral wrists, hands, and elbows; bilateral Morton’s neuroma of second web space; metatarsalgia; tenosynovitis; and thoracic compression fracture (Tr. 17). Notwithstanding the noted impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did 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. 19). The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work except that she could only frequently reach, handle, finger, feel, push, pull, and operate foot controls; occasionally climb and crawl; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; and frequently operate motor vehicles (Tr. 19). In formulating Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ considered Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined that, although the evidence established the presence of underlying impairments that reasonably could be expected to produce the symptoms alleged, Plaintiff’s statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence (Tr. 20). Considering Plaintiff’s noted impairments and the assessment of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a hair stylist (Tr. 24). Accordingly, based on Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled (Tr. 25).


         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must be disabled, meaning the claimant must be unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “[A] physical or mental impairment is an impairment that 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).

         The Social Security Administration, in order to regularize the adjudicative process, promulgated the detailed regulations currently in effect. These regulations establish a “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If an individual is found disabled at any point in the sequential review, further inquiry is unnecessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Under this process, the ALJ must determine, in sequence, the following: whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; whether the claimant has a severe impairment, i.e., one that significantly limits the ability to perform work-related functions; whether the severe impairment meets or equals the medical criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform the tasks required of his or her prior work, step five of the evaluation requires the ALJ to decide if the claimant can do other work in the national economy in view of his or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). A claimant is entitled to benefits only if unable to perform other work. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140–42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         A determination by the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence and comports with applicable legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (internal quotation marks omitted)); Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). While the court reviews the Commissioner’s decision with deference to the factual findings, no such deference is given to the legal conclusions. Keeton v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)).

         In reviewing the Commissioner’s decision, the court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the ALJ’s decision. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The Commissioner’s failure to apply the correct law, or to give the reviewing court sufficient reasoning for determining that he or she has conducted the proper legal analysis, mandates reversal. Keeton, 21 F.3d at 1066. The scope of review is thus limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider the opinion evidence from Dr. Leo Chen, Dr. Kalyani Ganesh, and Dr. Ciceron Villavivcencio Lazo. When assessing the medical evidence, the ALJ must state with particularity the weight afforded to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor. Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). The Social Security regulations provide guidelines for the ALJ to employ when evaluating medical opinion evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. In determining the weight to afford a medical opinion, the ALJ considers a variety of factors including but not limited to the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, whether an opinion is well-supported, whether an opinion is consistent with the record, and the area of the doctor’s specialization. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). For instance, the more a medical source presents evidence to support an opinion, such as medical signs and laboratory findings, the more weight that medical opinion will receive. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3). Further, the more consistent the medical opinion is with the record, the more weight that opinion will receive. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4). Typically, the ALJ must afford the testimony of a treating physician substantial or considerable weight unless “good cause” is shown to the contrary. Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (citation omitted). Good cause exists where: (1) the treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) the evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) the treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the physician’s own medical records. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). In fact, the ALJ may reject any opinion when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam).

         As the Commissioner notes, a physician’s opinion as to what a claimant can still do despite his or her impairments differs from an ALJ’s assessment of a claimant’s RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513, 404.1545, 404.1546; Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183 (July 2, 1996). Indeed, SSR 96-5p explains:

Even though the adjudicator’s RFC assessment may adopt the opinions in a medical source statement, they are not the same thing: A medical source statement is evidence that is submitted to SSA by an individual’s medical source reflecting the source’s opinion based on his or her own knowledge, while an RFC assessment is the adjudicator’s ultimate finding based on a consideration of this opinion and all the other evidence in the case record about what an individual can do despite his or her impairment(s).
A medical source’s statement about what an individual can still do is medical opinion evidence that an adjudicator must consider together with all of the other relevant evidence (including other medical source statements that may be in the case record) when assessing an individual’s RFC. Although an adjudicator may decide to adopt all of the opinions expressed in a medical source statement, a ...

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