Kline v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. (M.D. Fla. Aug. 17, 2018) (Decision by Magistrate Judge Karla Spaulding)

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Included: Joint Memorandum and Decision

Issue Briefed:

  1. 1)  Whether the ALJ’s finding that, mentally, Ms. Kline is able to perform simple, routine tasks in a non-public environment is consistent with the opinion of Dr. Kaplan, as the ALJ claimed.

  2. 2)  Whether the ALJ’s reasons for according “little weight” to the opinion of Dr. Keller, Ms. Kline’s treating neurosurgeon, are supported by substantial evidence.

  3. 3)  Whether the Commissioner met her burden of establishing that there is other work in the national economy that Ms. Kline could perform.

In Kline, the first upheld the ALJ’s rejection of the opinion of Dr. Kaplan. Slip op. at 13-14. However, the court next held that the ALJ failed to state good cause supported by substantial evidence in the record for giving little weight to the opinions of Dr. Keller, the plaintiff’s treating neurologist. Id. at 15 n.6, 16.

In so holding, the court addressed the four reasons cited for rejecting Dr. Keller’s opinion:

  1. (1)  Dr. Keller’s conclusions were “mere assertions without supporting findings”;

  2. (2)  Kline did not exhibit any significant neurologic deficits such as decreased strength or sensation and she maintained a good range of motion without significant nerve root compromise;

  3. (3)  some of Dr. Keller’s opinions were based on Kline’s mental impairments, which was beyond his expertise; and

  4. (4)  because drug abuse plays a significant role in Kline’s asserted inability to work, even if Dr. Keller’s opinion was persuasive, it would result in Kline being denied benefits.

Id. at 15.

The court found that the first two reasons were “not entirely supported by substantial evidence” as the “[m]edical records document cervical and lumbar disc herniation” with limited range of motion of plaintiff’s neck and a “slightly tilted, rigidly fixed neck.” Id. at 15-16. “Moreover, Dr. Keller found Kline’s cervical impairment to be so severe that he consistently recommended surgery.” Id. at 16.

iii

The court further found that while Dr. Keller’s specialty is not mental impairments, his opinion regarding Plaintiff’s mental functional impairments was consistent with the opinion of Dr. Kaplan, a psychologist. Id. Finally, regarding the discussion of drug abuse, the court held that the “ALJ erred in considering Kline’s drug abuse in the initial determination of whether she was disabled.” Id. As the court elaborated:

Regulations and case law indicate that the adjudicator first determines whether an individual is disabled and then, after this disability determination, the adjudicator considers whether the claimant’s drug abuse was a contributing factor material to the disability determination. See, e.g., McMahon v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec., 583 F. App’x 886, 891 (11th Cir. 2014) (unpublished decision cited as persuasive authority). In any event, until the SSA properly considers Dr. Keller’s opinions and states good cause for failing to give them significant weight, the finding that Kline’s drug abuse would make her ineligible for benefits is not supported by the record.

Id.

Finally because the court found that the “ALJ erred in her consideration of Dr. Keller’s opinions, the record is insufficient to support a finding that the hypothetical questions to the VE included all of Kline’s functional limitations.” Id. Thus, the Commissioner’s decision “is due to be reversed.” Id.