Martz v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 649 F. App’x 948 (11th Cir. May 23, 2016) (Decision by Circuit Judges Wilson, J. Carnes, and Ebel)

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

Issues Briefed:

  1. 1)  The ALJ did not properly evaluate the detailed opinion evidence from Ms. Martz’s treating rheumatologist and internist, Dr. Shanahan.

  2. 2)  The ALJ erred by refusing to allow for the cross-examination of Dr. Griscom, the medical expert (“ME”) who answered written interrogatories, and by failing to provide an opportunity for him to consider the detailed opinion articulated by Dr. Shanahan in September 2011.

  3. 3)  The ALJ reversibly erred by failing to make a proper assessment of Ms. Martz’s credibility.

In Martz, a case in which the ALJ asserted that the claimant’s disability ceased and that she experienced improvement sufficient to allow performance of a full range of light work including her past relevant work, the Eleventh Circuit reversed both in relation to the ALJ’s RFC finding and subjective complaint evaluation. Id. at 956-62. The court found nothing in the testimony of the “treating physicians or even in the statement of the Commissioner’s expert” that suggested the claimant could perform light work. Id. at 956-57. Thus, at most she could perform sedentary work, which would require the ALJ to proceed to step eight of the sequential evaluation analysis and utilize VE testimony. Id. at 957.

While the court declined to remand in relation to the ALJ’s refusal to permit cross- examination of the medical expert, id. at 962-63, the court did acknowledge that the ALJ reversibly erred by failing to clearly articulate the reasons for crediting a nonexamining physician’s opinion over that of a treating physician. Id. at 957-58. The court observed that the treating doctor is a specialist and former director of a research clinic, and had been the claimant’s treating physician for several years. Id. at 957. Despite this, the ALJ discounted the doctor’s opinion “because the objective medical evidence showed ‘a lack of symptoms’ and only ‘some’ fatigue.” Id.

The court criticized this finding as it did “not reflect a complete reading of the record.” Id. (citing Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995)). While there were episodes of improvement leading the claimant’s doctor to note an “impression that, all things considered, [she] was ‘doing rather well,’” the record also showed that there were times when her condition failed to improve or even worsened. Id. at 957-58. Therefore, rather than showing a general lack of symptoms or only some fatigue, the records showed that the claimant’s condition fluctuated, leading the court to conclude that the ALJ failed to articulate clear reasons for discrediting the physician’s opinion.

Id. at 958. The court also noted that the opinion was bolstered by certain findings from another physician. Id. at 958-59. In sum, the court was unable to discern why the ALJ, who considered the claimant’s “waxing and waning symptomology” to require a finding of disability for the earlier period, believed “this same sort of symptomology did not dictate a finding of disability after” that period. Id. at 959.

Concerning the ALJ’s affording significant weight to the opinion of a nonexamining medical expert, the court noted that such opinions do not by themselves amount either to good cause for discounting a treating physician’s opinion or to substantial evidence on which to base a decision. It was unclear why the ALJ gave the nonexaminer’s opinion controlling weight, and in view of the evidence from the treating physicians, it was apparent the assignment of weight was unsupported. Id. Regarding the nonexaminer’s reasoning, the court contrasted it with the evidence from the treating physicians, as it lacked the “level of detail” and, while it remarked that some notes showed improvement, “improvement is a relative concept and, by itself, does not convey whether or not a patient has recovered sufficiently to no longer be deemed unable to perform particular work on a sustained basis.” Id. at 959-60. Further, although in his responses the medical expert alluded to various lab test results, he failed to “explain how these objective measures of the functioning of Martz’s systems undermine her or her doctors’ testimony.” Id. at 960.

The court also reversed due to the ALJ’s deficient credibility determination. Id. at 960-62. The court recalled its discussion of the ALJ’s erroneous analysis of the medical opinions and concluded that “absent some clearer explanation by the ALJ,” the ALJ’s assertion that the testimony was undermined by objective medical evidence would not be upheld. Id. at 961. Addressing the claimant’s part-time work activities consisting of two days of work per week for seven hours per day, the court acknowledged “the applicable regulations state that the work a claimant has done during the period during which she claims to be disabled, even if the work does not constitute substantial gainful activity, may show that the claimant is able to do more than she actually did.” Id. Yet, the part-time job at issue did “not necessarily indicate that she had the ability to perform light work or sedentary work on a continued and sustained basis, as found by the ALJ.” Id.

Regarding the ALJ’s invocation of daily activities to discount the claimant’s allegations, the court reasoned that her being able to cook simple meals and drive ten miles at a time does not necessarily entitle an ALJ to discredit an allegation of inability to sustain light work due to persistent fatigue. Id. at 961-62. “Given the ALJ’s limited explanation for discrediting” the subjective complaints, the court remanded to the district court with directions to instruct the ALJ to reassess the claimant’s credibility. Id. at 962.