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Freyhagen v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 26, 2019

KIM R. FREYHAGEN, Plaintiff,



         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff’s appeal of an administrative decision denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), filed on March 30, 2017. (Tr. 10.) A video hearing was held before the assigned Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 30, 2018, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 30-65.) On April 26, 2018, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from April 1, 2015, the alleged disability onset date, through April 26, 2018, the date of the decision.[2] (Tr. 24.)

         Plaintiff is appealing the Commissioner’s final decision that she was not disabled from April 1, 2015 through April 26, 2018. Plaintiff has exhausted her available administrative remedies and the case is properly before the Court. (See Tr. 1-3.) The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.

         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 the ALJ’s RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence where the ALJ found that the consultative psychological opinion of Dr. Murphy contradicted the ALJ’s RFC finding. (Doc. 16 at 1.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding the opinion of Dr. Farrin, a non-examining State agency psychologist, more persuasive than the opinion of Dr. Murphy, an examining State agency psychologist. (Id. at 20-23.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s “conclusion regarding Plaintiff’s only moderate concentration, persistence and pace limitations (as opposed to Dr. Murphy’s marked assessment) [was] not supported by substantial evidence.” (Id. at 23.) Defendant responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that the opinion of Dr. Farrin was due more weight than the opinion of Dr. Murphy. (Doc. 17.)

         A. Standard for Evaluating Opinion Evidence

         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). In March 2017, the SSA amended its regulations regarding the evaluation of medical evidence for claims filed on or after March 27, 2017.[3] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c. Under the new regulations, the Commissioner “will not defer or give any specific evidentiary weight, including controlling weight, to any medical opinion(s) . . ., including those from [a claimant’s] medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(a). The amended regulations provide that when the Commissioner evaluates the persuasiveness of medical opinions and prior administrative medical findings, the most important factors are supportability and consistency. Id. The Commissioner is not required to articulate how it “considered each medical opinion or prior administrative medical finding from one medical source individually.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b)(1). “Other than articulating his consideration of the supportability and consistency factors, the Commissioner is not required to discuss or explain how he considered any other factor in determining persuasiveness.” Mudge v. Saul, No. 4:18CV693CDP, 2019 WL 3412616, *4 (E.D. Mo. July 29, 2019) (citing, inter alia, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b)(2)) (“We may, but are not required to, explain how we considered the factors in paragraphs (c)(3) through (c)(5) of this section, as appropriate, when we articulate how we considered medical opinions and prior administrative medical findings in [a claimant’s] case record.”)).

         Additionally, when there are “[e]qually persuasive medical opinions or prior administrative medical findings about the same issue, ” “both equally well-supported [] and consistent with the record [], but [] not exactly the same, ” the Commissioner “will articulate how [he] considered the other most persuasive factors in paragraphs (c)(3) through (c)(5), for those medical opinions.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b)(3); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(c)(3)-(5) (listing the additional enumerated factors as the medical source’s relationship with the claimant (giving consideration to the length of the treatment relationship, frequency of examinations, purpose of the treatment relationship, extent of the treatment relationship, and the examining relationship), specialization (noting that the medical opinion of a specialist “related to his or her area of specialty” may be more persuasive than the medical opinion of a non-specialist), and other factors (including, but not limited to, “evidence showing a medical source has familiarity with the other evidence in the claim or an understanding of our disability program’s policies and evidentiary requirements”)).

         The new regulations are not inconsistent with Eleventh Circuit precedent holding that “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 F. App’x 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).

         B. The ALJ’s Decision

         At step two of the five-step sequential evaluation process, [4] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “cervical spine old compression fracture[, ] cervical dystonia[, ] spondylosis[, ] obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, asthma, plantar fasciitis, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, diverticulitis, syncope[, ] and tinnitus.”[5] (Tr. 12.) 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. (Id.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work, as follows:

[T]he claimant can occasionally stoop, crouch, push and pull. She can understand, remember[, ] and carry [] out simple work tasks and adopt to routine workplace changes. She can occasionally interact with supervisors, coworkers[, ] and the general [] public. She is unable to work at unprotected heights or with machinery with moving mechanical parts such as conveyor belts. She cannot operate motor vehicles. She can work in areas of moderate noise such as areas with light traffic, department stores[, ] and grocery stores. She has to avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes[, ] and noxious gases.

(Tr. 14-15.) This RFC was based on “all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms [could] reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1529 and SSR 16-3p.” (Tr. 15.) The ALJ also “considered the medical opinions and prior administrative medical findings in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1520c.” (Id.)

         In considering Plaintiff’s alleged symptoms regarding her mental health, the ALJ summarized her testimony and statements, in part, as follows:

At the hearing, the claimant testified that she retired from the military on April 1, 2015. She said that she is 53 years of age and graduated from Pace University in 1988. She reported that she is not working currently. She stated that she lives with her husband who takes her to her medical appointments.
The claimant said that she tried to start her own business[, ] but it fell through financially and she could not do it psychologically. She said that she was in the military for 25 years. She said that she worked in medical administration. She said that she was responsible for the drug testing program and physical fitness program. She said that she also did public affairs working with all the community educators. She said that she represented the base. She said that she also did medical administration and taught courses about sexual harassment and ethics. She said that when she was deployed, she worked in humanitarian missions where she was responsible for medical records and phone calls. For the last six years of her career in the military, she said that she worked in personnel and oversaw 100 recruits. Her duties included preparing government credit cards and getting mission flights ready for deployment. She said that she went back to school after retiring from the military but could not continue due to ...

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