Bristol v. Astrue (CONSENT)
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Wallace Capel, Jr on 5/15/13. (scn, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:11cv959-WC
Plaintiff, Veletta Bristol, applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental
security income benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42
U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. Her application was initially denied at the initial administrative level.
Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision in which he found Plaintiff
not disabled. The Appeals Council rejected Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s
decision. The ALJ’s decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security (“Commissioner”).1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir.
1986). The case is now before the court for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to
Pursuant to the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, Pub. L.
No. 103-296, 108 Stat. 1464, the functions of the Secretary of Health and Human Services with
respect to Social Security matters were transferred to the Commissioner of Social Security.
28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry
of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.’s Consent to
Jurisdiction (Doc. 8); Def.’s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 9). Based on the court’s review
of the record and the briefs of the parties, the court AFFIRMS the decision of the
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the
person is unable to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result
in death or 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).2
To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2006).
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person’s impairment severe?
(3) Does the person’s impairment meet or equal one of the specific
impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? [the Listing of
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next
question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative
A “physical or mental impairment” is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques.
answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of “not
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).3
The burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357
F.3d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). A claimant establishes a prima facie case of qualifying
disability once they have carried the burden of proof from Step 1 through Step 4. At Step 5,
the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show there are a significant number
of jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id.
To perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine the claimant’s Residual
Functional Capacity (RFC). Id. at 1238-39. RFC is what the claimant is still able to do
despite his impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It also
can contain both exertional and nonexertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At the fifth step,
the ALJ considers the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if
there are jobs available in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To
do this, the ALJ can either use the Medical Vocational Guidelines4 (grids) or call a vocational
expert (VE). Id. at 1239-40.
The grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or
light work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience.
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026 (11th Cir. 1986), is a supplemental security income case
(SSI). The same sequence applies to disability insurance benefits. Cases arising under Title II
are appropriately cited as authority in Title XVI cases. See, e.g., Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d
408 (5th Cir. 1981).
See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2.
Each factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an
individual. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorilyrequired finding of “Disabled” or “Not Disabled.” Id.
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is a limited one. This court must
find the Commissioner’s decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). “Substantial
evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence
as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). See also Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d
1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (“Even if the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner’s findings, [a reviewing court] must affirm if the decision reached is
supported by substantial evidence.”). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of
the record which support the decision of the ALJ, but instead must view the record in its
entirety and take account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ.
Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179 (11th Cir. 1986).
[The court must] . . . scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the
reasonableness of the [Commissioner’s] . . . factual findings. . . . No similar
presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner’s] . . . legal conclusions,
including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating
Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).
Plaintiff was forty-one years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ and had
completed the tenth grade. Tr. 21. Her past relevant work experience was as a cashier. Tr.
33. Following an administrative hearing, and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found
Plaintiff had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 9, 2009, the alleged
onset date.” (Step 1) Tr. 19. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the
following severe impairments: “lumber degenerative disc disease, chronic low back pain,
bilateral leg, knee and hand pain, obesity, anxiety and major depression, single episode, mild
to moderate.” Id. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff did “not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments.”
(Step 3) Id. Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC:
to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(b)
and 416.967 (b). The claimant has mild to moderate postural limitations
(climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling) and mild
manipulative limitations (reaching in all directions including overhead,
handling, fingering, and feeling) with moderate limitations of the left hand.
The claimant shall avoid hazardous machinery and work at unprotected
heights. The claimant possesses mild situational depression.
Tr. 20. Later in the decision, the ALJ further reduced Plaintiff’s RFC by finding that she
would be limited to “unskilled” light work. Tr. 32. At Step Four, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff could perform past work as a cashier/checker.
Even though that
determination would preclude a finding of disability, the ALJ continued on to Step 5. After
consulting with the VE, the ALJ identified jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that Plaintiff could perform and after applying the Medical-Vocational
Rules, determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability since the alleged onset date
through the date of the decision. Tr. 34.
Plaintiff presents three issues for this courts review: whether substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s finding at step four that Plaintiff can return to past relevant work as a
cashier; whether the RFC is supported by substantial evidence; and whether the ALJ
erred in his treatment of doctor Estock’s opinion.
Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding at step four that
Plaintiff can return to past relevant work as a cashier.
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred when he determined that Plaintiff was limited to
unskilled light work, but then found that Plaintiff could return to her past employment as a
cashier, which is semi-skilled work. Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 14) at 11. The Commissioner concedes
this error, but argues that it is harmless. Def.’s Brief (Doc. 15) at 8.
Indeed, the ALJ did error at Step 4, in that he determined that Plaintiff’s RFC would
limit her to unskilled light work, see Tr. 32, and then determined that Plaintiff could perform
past work as a cashier, Tr. 33. However, the error is harmless because the ALJ went on to
Step 5 and identified light, unskilled jobs within the national economy that Plaintiff could
perform. See, e.g., Delia v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 433 F. App’x 885, 887 (11th Cir. 2011)
(finding harmless error where ALJ considered limitations at later stages of analysis). Thus,
any error at Step 4 was rendered harmless when the ALJ identified light unskilled jobs that
existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
Whether the RFC is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff’s argument here is that the Steps 4 and 5 determinations are not supported
by substantial evidence, because the RFC determination does not “articulate a single mental
functional limitation occasioned by the ‘severe’ mental impairments of anxiety and major
depression single episode.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 14) at 13. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ fell short
of the requirement in SSR 96-8p that he “discuss the individual’s ability to perform sustained
work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis,” and, thus, the
decision can not be reviewed.
The court does not agree that the ALJ’s decision falls short of the requirements set
forth in SSR 96-8p and that it cannot be reviewed. First, the ALJ discussed the opinion of
doctor Jacobs and his diagnosis of “major depression, single episode, mild to moderate.” Tr.
24. Second, the ALJ discussed the opinions of doctor Estock and his Psychiatric Review
Form and Mental Residual Function Capacity Assessment. Id. Third, the ALJ clearly stated
in the decision that he accorded “greater weight” to doctor Estock’s opinion “that
documented no more than moderate mental deficits.” Tr. 33. Thus, the ALJ did discuss the
“severe” mental limitations in making his RFC determination and this court is able to review
the ALJ’s determination. Moreover, Plaintiff fails to offer any argument, or point to any
evidence of record to show how the RFC conflicts with any mental findings at Step 2, and
the court will not suppose arguments on Plaintiff’s behalf.
The ALJ’s designation of “greater weight” to doctor Estock’s opinion.
Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he gave “great weight” to doctor
Estock’s opinion, then seemingly rejected portions of it. Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 15) at 15. The ALJ
determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a full range of unskilled work. Yet,
doctor Estock opined that Plaintiff’s interaction with the public should be casual and that
“criticism and feedback from supervisors and co-workers in the workplace should be casual
and non-confronting [sic] or supportive.”
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s
designation of “great weight” to doctor Estock’s opinion, without including these restrictions
in the RFC, or failing to explain why those restrictions were not included in the RFC, is fatal
to the determination. Moreover, Plaintiff argues that the error cannot be made harmless by
examining the identified available jobs in the national economy, because those specific
limitations were not given to the VE for consideration.
First, the court must note that doctor Estock was not a treating physician, he was a
state agency reviewing doctor. This is an important distinction, because his opinion is not
subject to the required articulation of good cause of that of a treating physician.5 Doctor
Estock’s opinion was not based on a treating relationship, nor an examination. Rather, it was
based on a review of Plaintiff’s records, which included Plaintiff’s statements regarding her
See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004).
own symptoms, which were rejected in the ALJ’s decision. See Tr. 32. Second, the ALJ
specified that he was giving the opinion “great weight,” but fell short of assigning it
“controlling weight” which he could not do, as doctor Estock was not a treating source.6
This is also an important distinction, because it is the job of the ALJ to review and weigh the
evidence, as he did here. The ALJ also expressed (in the same paragraph in the decision) that
he gave consideration to the opinion of doctor Jacobs, who’s diagnosis “documented nothing
disabling.” Tr. 29, 33.
While a detailed explanation of the ALJ’s rejection of this portion of doctor Estock’s
opinion would have been certainly helpful to this reviewing court, the court is able to review
the ALJ’s determination, and that determination is supported by substantial evidence. See
Taylor v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 213 F. App’x 778, 780-81 (11th Cir. 2006). As the
Commissioner rightly points out, those additional limitations were not supported by medical
evidence of record. Def.’s Br. (Doc. 15) 11-12. Further, Plaintiff fails to identify medical
evidence of record to show why the implicit rejection of this portion of doctor Estock’s
opinion was error.7 As to Plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ’s finding that there are jobs in
the national economy that Plaintiff can perform is flawed because the hypothetical question
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2).
Indeed, Estock’s opinion, even taken with the rejected portion, indicates that Plaintiff can
perform a range of light work.
to the VE did not contain those limitations, the argument fails because the ALJ need not ask
a question that includes limitations that were rejected.8
Plaintiff’s central argument is that this court is unable to review the ALJ’s
determination and findings because the decision was inarticulate. Despite the error and lack
of explication the court is able to review the decision and able to determine that it is
supported by substantial evidence. The record does not reflect that Plaintiff was under a
disability during the relevant time period.
The court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes that, for
the reasons given above, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A separate
judgment will issue.
Done this 15th day of May, 2013.
/s/ Wallace Capel, Jr.
WALLACE CAPEL, JR.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
See Crawford v. Comm’r Of Soc. Sec. 363 F.3d 1155, 1161 (11th Cir. 2004).
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