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Keplar v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019

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



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


         The Plaintiff was born in 1969, completed the eleventh grade, and has past relevant work experience as a window repairer. (R. 44-45, 58-59). In December 2014, the Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability as of June 15, 2012, due to diabetes and high blood pressure. (R. 68). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied his application both initially and on reconsideration. (R. 67-88).

         At the Plaintiff’s request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on the matter on February 7, 2017. (R. 37-66). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at that hearing and testified on his own behalf. (R. 39-58). A vocational expert (VE) also testified. (R. 58-64).

         In a decision dated July 21, 2017, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff: (1) was insured for DIB through December 31, 2014, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the time of his alleged onset date through his date last insured; (2) had the severe impairments of obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, and peripheral neuropathy; (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 a limited range of light work through his date last insured; and (5) based in part on the VE’s testimony, could not perform his past relevant work but was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy through that time period. (R. 7-23). In light of these findings, the ALJ 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.App’x 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 engage in his past relevant work; and (5) can perform other jobs in the national economy given his 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.App’x 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 he 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. See 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. See 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.App’x at 739 (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005)). “[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).


         On appeal, the Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly: (1) assess the retrospective opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Brandi Johnson; (2) evaluate his subjective complaints; and (3) consider all of the relevant medical evidence. (Doc. 22 at 10-31). The Commissioner counters that the ALJ’s treatment of the evidence was both appropriate and adequately supported by the record. Id. Upon thorough review of the record and the parties’ submissions, the Court finds no basis for reversal or remand.


         Medical Opinions

         In evaluating 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.App’x 960, 962 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b)).[4] “‘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 [his] 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, he need not explicitly address them in his decision. Lawton v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 431 Fed.App’x 830, 833 (11th Cir. 2011).

         Typically, the ALJ must afford the testimony of a treating physician substantial or considerable weight unless “good cause” is shown to the contrary. Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159 (citation omitted). Good cause exists where 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, 357 F.3d at 1241 (citation omitted); see also Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159. This Circuit has also held that a treating physician’s opinion is not entitled to great weight “if evidence of the claimant’s daily activities contradicts the opinion.” Jarrett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 422 Fed.App’x 869, 873 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241).

         Here, the Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Johnson, provided care to the Plaintiff from March to June 2015 for burns on his right leg and foot that he claims stemmed from his diabetes and peripheral neuropathy. (Doc. 22 at 8-9). On May 13, 2017, Dr. Johnson performed a physical functional capacity assessment of the Plaintiff and provided a retrospective assessment of his restrictions dating back to November 1, 2014, roughly two months before his date last insured. (R. 33-36). In her assessment, Dr. Johnson opined that, after November 1, 2014, the Plaintiff suffered from a number of significant exertional limitations that confined him to less than sedentary work during the relevant time frame. (R. 16, 34).

         In his decision, the ALJ afforded Dr. Johnson’s opinion “little weight.” As support for this assessment and as noted above, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was less restricted than Dr. Johnson determined and that his claimed impairments were not disabling. Id. The ALJ also found ...

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