Brown-Gaudet-Evans v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 673 F. App’x 902 (11th Cir. Dec. 8, 2016) (Decision by Circuit Judges Hull, Wilson, and Martin)

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Included: Appellant Initial Brief, Appellant’s Reply Brief, Decision

Issues Briefed:

  1. 1)  Whether the ALJ erred in according little weight to the Veterans Administration impairment rating decision.

  2. 2)  Whether the ALJ’s RFC formulation is not based on substantial record evidence and embodies errors of law, including inadequate evaluation of the medical opinion evidence.

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In Brown-Gaudet-Evans, the claimant successfully argued that the ALJ erred by giving only “little weight” to a VA disability determination, as such determinations should be given “great weight.” Id. at 904. The court first observed that since the argument “is about the legal principles upon which the ALJ based his decision,” it was entitled to de novo review. Id. (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005)). The ALJ discounted the VA determination, which provided an 80% rating for disability and 100% for unemployability, because it was based on different criteria than those used by SSA. The court explained that while such ratings are not binding, and there was no dispute that the agencies rely on different criteria, the ratings are “‘evidence that should be given great weight.’” Id. (quoting Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 921 (11th Cir. 1984)). The differences in the criteria do “not mean that the ALJ can summarily ignore the VA’s determination nor give it ‘little weight.’ Therefore, the ALJ erred.” Id. The court directed that on remand “the ALJ must seriously consider and closely scrutinize the VA’s disability determination and must give specific reasons if the ALJ discounts that determination.” Id. (citing Rodriguez v. Schweiker, 640 F.2d 682, 686 (5th Cir. Unit A Mar. 25, 1981)).

The court next held that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s determination that the claimant’s impairments of CTS and ganglion cysts still permitted the performance of light work during the relevant period. Id. at 905. Here, the ALJ fully reviewed the evidence and cited medical evidence supporting the determination. Id. at 905-06.

However, the court was persuaded by an argument that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the impact of the claimant’s fibromyalgia on her ability to do light work. Id. at 906. The ALJ erroneously relied on an absence of records from a treating rheumatologist and conservative treatment with medication to conclude that nothing in the record suggested the fibromyalgia symptoms could not be alleviated by medication. The court explained that there were, in fact, some notes from the rheumatologist, repeated diagnoses of fibromyalgia by other doctors who prescribed medications, and evidence suggesting the symptoms were not alleviated with medication usage. The court reiterated that it “has recognized that fibromyalgia, a chronic pain illness, is usually diagnosed based on an individual’s described symptoms because the ‘hallmark’ of the disease is ‘a lack of objective evidence.’” Id. (quoting Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211). The Eleventh Circuit held that, “[i]n light of the contradictions in the record, the ALJ failed to adequately explain why he did not credit Brown-Gaudet-Evans’s testimony as to her pain” and thus the ALJ’s determination that her “fibromyalgia symptoms did not prevent her from performing the full range of light work was not supported by substantial evidence.” Id.