Huckabaa v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER. Signed by Honorable Judge Terry F. Moorer on 3/20/2015. (kh, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CASE NO. 1:13-cv-753-TFM
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Patricia Huckabaa (“Plaintiff” or “Huckabaa”) protectively applied for Disability
Insurance Benefits and Social Security Income under Title II and Title XVI of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., on July 17, 2008. (Tr. 12). After
being denied, Huckabaa timely filed for and received a hearing before an administrative
law judge (“ALJ”) who rendered an unfavorable decision on March 5, 2010. (Tr. 9).
Daniels sought review by the Appeals Council who rejected review on March 14, 2011.
(Tr. 1). As a result, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security (“Commissioner”). Id. Judicial review proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). After careful scrutiny of the record and briefs, for
reasons herein explained, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s decision.
I. NATURE OF THE CASE
Huckabaa seeks judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision denying his
application for disability insurance benefits. United States District Courts may conduct
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limited review of such decisions to determine whether they comply with applicable law
and are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405. The Court may affirm,
reverse and remand with instructions, or reverse and render a judgment. Id.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is a limited one. The Court’s
sole function is to determine whether the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial
evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Jones v. Apfel, 190
F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th
“The Social Security Act mandates that ‘findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.’” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553,
1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §405(g)). Thus, this Court must find the
Commissioner’s decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. Graham v.
Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla
— i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a
fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as
adequate to support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir.
1997) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d
842 (1971)); Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th
If the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district
court will affirm, even if the court would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact,
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and even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings. Ellison v.
Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584
n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir.
1986)). The Court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence
favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Chester v.
Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The Court “may not decide facts anew,
reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner],” but
rather it “must defer to the Commissioner’s decision if it is supported by substantial
evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Bloodsworth,
703 F.2d at 1239).
The Court will also reverse a Commissioner’s decision on plenary review if the
decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with
sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton
v. Dep’t of Health and Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing
Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). There is no presumption
that the Commissioner’s conclusions of law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d
1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053).
III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
The Social Security Act’s general disability insurance benefits program (“DIB”)
provides income to individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature retirement,
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provided they are both insured and disabled, regardless of indigence.1 See 42 U.S.C. §
423(a). The Social Security Act’s Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) is a separate
and distinct program. SSI is a general public assistance measure providing an additional
resource to the aged, blind, and disabled to assure that their income does not fall below
the poverty line.2 Eligibility for SSI is based upon proof of indigence and disability. See
42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). However, despite the fact they are separate
programs, the law and regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are
identical; therefore, claims for DIB and SSI are treated identically for the purpose of
determining whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n.
1 (11th Cir. 1986). Applicants under DIB and SSI must provide “disability” within the
meaning of the Social Security Act which defines disability in virtually identical language
for both programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is
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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is one
resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are
DIB is authorized by Title II of the Social Security Act, and is funded by Social Security taxes.
See Social Security Administration, Social Security Handbook, § 136.1, available at
SSI benefits are authorized by Title XVI of the Social Security Act and are funded by general
tax revenues. See Social Security Administration, Social Security Handbook, §§ 136.2, 2100,
available at http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/handbook/handbook.html
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demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42
U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).
The Commissioner of Social Security employs a five-step, sequential evaluation
process to determine whether a claimant is entitled to benefits.
See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920 (2010).
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person’s impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the person’s impairment(s) meet or equal one of the specific impairments
set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?3
(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 questions leads either to the next
question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative
answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).
The burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. See Phillips v. Barnhart,
357 F.3d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). Claimants establish a prima facie case of
qualifying disability once they meet 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.
This subpart is also referred to as “the Listing of Impairments” or “the Listings.”
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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 hear testimony from a vocational expert (VE). Id. at
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. Each factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available
to an individual. Id. at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorily-required
finding of “Disabled” or “Not Disabled.” Id.
IV. ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
Plaintiff was born in 1971 and was 36 years old as of the alleged onset of disability
date and 41 years old at the time of the ALJ’s September 5, 2012 decision. (Tr. 10481049). She alleged disability due to limitations from both physical and mental medical
conditions. (Tr. 158). She obtained a commercial driver’s license and attended some
college. (Tr. 1065-66). From 2002 through September 16, 2007, she worked as a
See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.969 (use of the grids in SSI
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technician/machine operator at a carpet yarn manufacturing plant: a job which, according
to Plaintiff, involved lifting 25 to 50 pounds frequently and up to 100 pounds or more at
times. (Tr. 159-60). The vocational expert testified that Plaintiff’s technician/machine
operator job was in the “heavy” exertional category (requiring lifting 50 to 100 pounds
frequently) and was a semi-skilled job (specific vocational preparation) (SVP) of 3). (Tr.
In her decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since September 26, 2007, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 14). The ALJ
found that Ms. Huckabaa suffered from the following severe impairments: depression,
panic disorder, fibromyalgia, carpel tunnel syndrome status post decompression, obesity
and rheumatoid arthritis. (Tr. 14). However, the ALJ found that Huckabaa did not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the
listed impairments. (Tr. 14). The ALJ concluded Huckabaa had the residual functional
capacity to perform:
Light work as defined in 20 §§ CFR 404.1567 (b) and 416.967(b) except
the claimant is limited to work which will only require the claimant to:
frequently perform fine manipulation; work independently (however, the
claimant can work in close proximity to others); perform simple, routine
and repetitive tasks; have non-confrontational supervision; adapt to minimal
changes in the work setting; and have brief, superficial contact with the
See Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) # 929.687-030(“Material Handler”) (4th ed. rev. 1991),
available at 1991 WL 688174.
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The ALJ then found Huckabaa unable to perform any of her past relevant work.
(Tr. 20). However, the ALJ determined there were jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy Huckabaa could perform. (Tr. 20). Finally, the ALJ concluded
that Huckabaa had not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from
September 26, 2007, the alleged onset date, through March 5, 201, the date of her
decision. (Tr. 21). The Appeals Council denied her request for review by letter dated
March 14, 2011. (Tr. 1).
Thereafter, Huckabaa filed a Civil Action before this Court resulting in an Order
reversing and remanding her decision to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (Tr.
1103). The Appeals Council issued an order remanding Huckabaa’s case to the ALJ for
the removal of evidence not related to Huckabaa, for further consideration of Huckabaa’s
RFC, and, if warranted, the testimony of a Vocational Expert. (Tr. 1110-1111). The
Appeals Council also associated Huckabaa’s case with subsequent claims for Title II and
XVI benefits filed on July 25, 2011. (Tr. 1111).
On June 5, 2012, Huckabaa appeared in Evergreen, Alabama and testified at a
second video hearing held before the ALJ. Huckabaa received an unfavorable decision
from the ALJ dated September 5, 2012. (Tr. 1033). In his decision, the ALJ found that
Huckabaa met the insured requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2012. (Tr. 1038). Next, the ALJ determined that Huckabaa had not engaged in subtantial
gainful activity since September 26, 2007, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 1038). The ALJ
found that Huckabaa suffered from the following severe impairments: depression, panic
disorder, carpel tunnel syndrome status post decompression, obesity, and fibromyalgia.
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(Tr. 1038). However, the ALJ found that Huckabaa did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments.
(Tr. 1039). The ALJ concluded that Huckabaa had the residual functional capacity to
A reduced range of light work as defined in 20 §§ CFT 404.1567 (b) and
416.967(b). She is limited to frequent fine manipulation. She is able to
work independently and perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks. She is
limited to non-confrontational supervision. She can adapt to minimal
changes in the workplace but she is limited to brief, superficial contact with
The ALJ found Huckabaa unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr.
1047). However, the ALJ determined there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy Huckabaa could perform. (Tr. 1048). Finally, the ALJ concluded
that Huckabaa had not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from
September 26, 2007, through September 5, 2012, the date of his decision. (Tr. 1049).
Huckabaa appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council and her request for review
was denied in a letter dated August 15, 2013. (Tr. 1020).
Huckabaa raises two issues for judicial review.
The issues and arguments
Huckabaa raises turn upon this Court’s ultimate inquiry of whether the Commissioner’s
disability decision is supported by the proper legal standards and by substantial evidence.
See Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624-25(11th Cir.1987). These issues are set out by
Huckabaa as follows:
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(1) Whether the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed as the ALJ failed to
properly consider the opinion of Dr. Randall Jordan, Psy.D., a consultative examiner.
(See Doc. 14 at 5).
(2) Whether the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because the ALJ
failed to accord any weight to the opinions of Dr. Davis, M.D., Huckabaa’s treating
physician. (See Doc. 14 at 9). (Emphasis in original.)
I. The ALJ properly considered the opinion of Dr. Randall Jordan, Psy.D., a
Plaintiff generally argues that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed
because the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Dr. Randall Jordan, Psy.D., a
consultative examining psychologist. While Huckabaa agrees that Dr. Jordan’s opinion is
consistent with the medical evidence of record, she argues the ALJ failed to properly
consider Jordan’s opinion which, in fact, supports a finding of disability based upon the
severity of Huckabaa’s underlying mental impairments. (Pl. Brief. p. 5). Thus, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ either misunderstood or misapplied Jordan’s findings and opinion.
Indeed, the ALJ stated that he gave Dr. Jordan’s opinion “great weight,” and
explicitly relied on it in establishing Plaintiff’s “B criteria” at step three of the sequential
evaluation (described hereinafter at p.12) and in assessing Plaintiff’s residual functional
(Tr. 1040, 1043-44).
Dr. Jordan’s report includes essentially normal
examination findings, including his finding that Plaintiff’s psychiatric condition did not
interfere with daily living skill, although Plaintiff spent the majority of her day isolating
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herself to her home. (Tr. 1220). Dr. Jordan assessed Plaintiff with bipolar disorder,
depressed type, and panic attacks with agoraphobia, and assigned Plaintiff a global
assessment of functioning (GAF) of 40.6 When asked to describe Plaintiff’s mental
functional limitations, Dr. Jordan concluded that Plaintiff:
could function independently;
could hear and understand normal conversation without great difficulty;
could carry out and remember instructions of a simple, one-step nature;
could carry out multi-step tasks without some degree of supervision; and
had a moderately-to-severely comprised ability to respond well to coworkers,
supervision, and everyday work pressures.
By comparison, at step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had only mild
difficulties in activities of daily living, had moderate difficulties in social functioning, and
moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 1040). As for mental
limitations in the residual functional capacity finding, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:
- could work independently;
- could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks;
- was limited to work involving non-confrontational supervision;
- could adapt to minimal changes in the workplace; and
- should be limited to brief, superficial contact with the public.
In spite of the close correlation between the ALJ’s findings and Dr. Jordan’s
opinion, Plaintiff argues that they are fundamentally opposed. On October 12, 2011,
Huckabaa saw Dr. Jordan for a consultative evaluation.
In the prior edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), GAF was
used to subjectively rate the social, occupational, and psychological functioning of adults. See DSM-IVTR at 34 (4th ed. rev. 2000). GAF scores were dropped from the newest edition of the DSM “for several
reasons, including its conceptual lack of clarity . . . And questionable psychometrics in routine practice.”
See DSM-5, at *16 (5th ed. 2013).
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“‘depression, sadness, hopelessness, and isolation” as well as depressive cycles, manic
periods, and daily panic attacks. (Tr. 1250). In his examination, Dr. Jordan noted that
Huckabaa’s “affect was restricted but was congruent with mood, which might be
described as depressed and nervous but appropriate to situation.” (Tr. 1251). He later
noted “socially, the claimant functions in a fairly isolated manner. The claimant spends
the majority of her day doing a little and resting and isolating herself to home.” (Tr.
Based upon his examination of Huckabaa, Dr. Jordan diagnosed “Bipolar
disorder, depressed type” and “Panic attacks with agoraphobia” and assigned a GAF
score of 40. (Tr. 1251). He further indicated a “guarded” prognosis for the next 6-12
months despite finding that Huckabaa was motivated and cooperative during the exam.
(Tr. 1252). He then noted “[i]n terms of vocation, the claimant’s ability to respond well
to coworkers, supervisors, and everyday work pressures is compromised to a moderate to
severe degree due to psychiatric issues.” (Emphasis added) (Tr. 1252).
At step three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ compares the objective
evidence of record with specific, listed impairments (“listings”) to determine whether the
claimant meets the criteria of those impairments. If the evidence does not specifically
meet each of the criteria of the relevant listing, the ALJ will find that the claimant does
not meet that listing. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183. For mental impairments the listings
require an assessment of degree of limitation in four broad areas, known as the “B
criteria”: activities of daily living, maintaining social functioning; maintaining
concentration, persistence, and pace; and episodes of decompensation.
20 C.F.R. §
404.1520a. Here, the ALJ emphasized and relied on the opinions of Dr. Jordan (Tr. 952-
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54, 1250-52) and the opinion of State agency consulting psychologist Hope Jackson (Tr.
966) – opinions which the ALJ found merited “great weight” (Tr. 1043-44, 1046) and
“some weight” (Tr. 1046) – in assessing Plaintiff’s limitations as part of the “B criteria”.
(Tr. 1040). See Sharfaz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)(The ALJ is
required to “state with particularity the weight he gave different medical opinions and the
Applying the “B criteria” at step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “moderate”
difficulties in social functioning based on evidence about her social functioning at home
and work. (Tr. 1040). By comparison Dr. Jordan concluded that Plaintiff would have
moderately-to-severely compromised ability to respond well to coworkers, supervision
and everyday work pressures. (Tr. 1252). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “implicitly
rejected the ‘severe’ end of Dr. Jordan’s finding without explanation by not including a
“B criteria” finding of “moderate to severe” in social functioning. She also argues that a
“true social setting” involves the workplace, not the home. Plaintiff argues also that she
would have met the “B criteria of a mental listing (presumably Listings 12.04 (Affective
Disorders) and 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders)) if the ALJ had found that she had a
“moderate to severe” limitation in social functioning. See Pl. Br. At 6. For the following
reasons, the court concludes that each of Plaintiff’s sub-arguments fail.
First, Plaintiff’s arguments misconstrue the application of the “B criteria” of the
The first three “B criteria” categories – activities of daily living,
maintaining social functioning, and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace – are
rated on a five-point scale of none - mild - moderate - marked - extreme. See 20 C.F.R. §
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404. 1520a(c);20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 1 § 12.00. Dr. Jordan did not opine that
Plaintiff had “marked” or even “moderate-to-marked” social functioning limitations.
Rather, he found “moderate to severe” limitations in social functioning, which is not
included in the scale.
Second, Plaintiff’s contention that only workplace social functioning is “true”
social functioning for purposes of step three is incorrect. The regulations are clear. In
addition to social behavior in the workplace, “[s]ocial functioning refers to your capacity
to interact independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis with other
individuals. Social functioning includes the ability to get along with others, such as
family members, friends, neighbors, grocery clerks, landlords, or bus drivers.” See 20
C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 § 12.00C(2).
Finally, even if Dr. Jordan’s opinion did indicate that Plaintiff had “marked”
difficulty in social functioning, Plaintiff would still failed to meet the listing. Both
Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders) and 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders) require that a
claimant meet two of the following four criteria: (1) marked restriction of activities of
daily living; (2) marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) marked
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) repeated episodes
of decompensation, each of extended duration. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §§
12.04B, 12.06B. Plaintiff’s arguments, even if accepted fail to establish that she met
more than one of those four criteria.
Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment did
not adequately address Dr. Jordan’s findings and opinions. Specifically, Plaintiff argues
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that the ALJ’s attempt to reject the GAF score assigned by Dr. Jordan is erroneous. The
ALJ stated that “Dr. Jordan assessed the GAF scores of 40 and 45, which are indicative of
some impairment in reality testing or communication and serious symptoms,
respectively.” (Tr. 1046). He further found that “these scores are inconsistent with Dr.
Jordan’s opinion concerning the claimant’s abilities and his findings from examination.”
(Tr. 1046). Plaintiff argues this finding is in error.
For the following reasons, the court concludes this argument is meritless. The law
is clear; the Commissioner alone has the authority to determine a claimant’s residual
functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c)(residual functional capacity finding is
reserved to the Commissioner.) Further, the residual functional capacity finding is based
on all the evidence of record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a); Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F. 3d
1208, 1212-13 (11th Cir. 2005) (upholding ALJ’s RFC finding which was based on
examination findings and claimant’s own statements of capabilities.)
premises this argument primarily, if not solely, on Dr. Jordan’s GAF scores. (Tr. 953,
1251). However, the ALJ explicitly stated that GAF scores are not endorsed for use in
“Social Security and SSI disability programs.”(Tr. 1046). See 65 Fed. Reg. 50746,
50764-65 (Aug. 21, 2000); accord Wind v. Barnhart, 133 F. App’x 684, 692 n. 5 (11th
Cir. 2005). Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association recently removed the use of the
GAF scale from the newest edition of the DSM “for several reasons, including its
conceptual lack of clarity . . . and questionable psychometrics in routine practice.” See
The Court understands the Plaintiff to generally argue that the ALJ’s residual functional capacity needs
to be based on the opinion of a particular medical source or sources. (Doc. 14; Pl. Br. at 6-7 and 10-12.).
This is not the case: A residual functional capacity is based on all the evidence of record. Barnhart, id.
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DSM-5 at *16. Similarly, in Davis v. Astrue, 287 F. App’x 748 (11th Cir. 2008), the
Eleventh Circuit recognized that a low GAF score did not merit any weight because it
was not supported by the medical source’s subsequent opinion that the claimant was
“functioning fair.” Id. at 750-51
Additionally, the ALJ stated that Dr. Jordan’s assignment of a GAF score of 40
was at odds with his narrative explanation of Plaintiff’s actual functional capabilities –
i.e. that she could function independently, could carry out and remember simple
instructions, etc. (Tr. 1252). Thus, to the extent that Dr. Jordan’s GAF scores were an
opinion of Plaintiff’s functioning, the ALJ gave a valid, good reason to reject those GAF
scores. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4)(ALJ must consider the consistency of evidence with
other evidence); Winschel v. Commissioner, 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (good cause to discount
medical source opinion which was inconsistent with that source’s other findings).
Accordingly, the court concludes Plaintiff’s argument that her GAF scores undermine the
ALJ’s residual functional capacity finding is meritless.8
II. The ALJ gave good reasons for discounting Dr. Davis’s statements that
Plaintiff was “disabled” or “[un]able to work.”
Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ was required to assign controlling weight or
great weight to statements by Dr. Davis that Plaintiff was “disabled” or “[un]able to
Plaintiff makes the cursory argument that this case is due to be remanded because the ALJ did not
address the weight he gave to one of the non-examining state psychologist’s opinions. See Pls. Brief at
p.8. However, there is no reason to remand an otherwise sufficient residual functional capacity finding
when “[an] unmentioned physician’s opinion merely supported the ALJ’s conclusion, and was thus
unnecessary.” See Nyberg v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 179 F. App’x 589, 592 (11th Cir. 2006) (noting that,
where the outcome of the case could not reasonably have changed had an unmentioned opinion been
considered, remand is not required). (Citation omitted.) The Court concludes that such is the case here.
Indeed Dr. Hinton’s findings are functionally identical to Dr. Jackson’s opinion, essentially consistent
with Dr. Jordan’s opinion, and essentially consistent with the ALJ’s step three and residual functional
capacity findings. (Compare Tr. 569, 606 with Tr. 966, 1040, 1041, 1252.)
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work.” See Pl. Br. at 9-14. The Eleventh Circuit has established that the opinion of a
treating physician “‘must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’
is shown to the contrary.’” “‘[G]ood cause exists when 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 v. Barnart, 357 F.3d at 1241 (11th Cir. 2004)(citing Lewis, 125
F.3d 1436,1440 (11th Cir. 1997). In Lewis, the Eleventh Circuit also established that the
ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for giving less weight to the opinion of a treating
physician and that the failure to do so constitutes reversible error. 125 F.3d at 1440.
Furthermore, a treating physician’s opinion will be given controlling weight if it is well
supported by medically acceptable clinical and diagnostic techniques and is consistent
with other evidence in the record. Holley v. Chater, 931 F.Supp. 840, 849 (S.D. Fla.
1996) (citing Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583-84 (11th Cir. 1991)).
However, the simple fact that a treating physician’s opinion is included in the
evidence does not require the ALJ to follow it but rather the opinion may be given less
weight or dismissed entirely. Washington v. Barnhart, 175 F. Supp. 2d 1340, 1346 (M.D.
Ala. 2001) (finding that the ALJ properly considered the treating physician’s medical
opinions based on the objective medical evidence in the record as a whole it was “entirely
reasonable” when the treating physician’s records and notes were inconsistent). When an
ALJ chooses to reject the opinions of the claimant’s treating physicians there needs to be
sufficient detail set forth by the ALJ for the court to conduct a meaningful review.
Pettaway v. Astrue, Case No. 06-00880-WS-B, 2008 WL 1836738, at *14 (S.D. Ala. Apr.
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21, 2008) (finding that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of a treating physician
because insufficient detail was set forth by the ALJ for the reviewing court to be able to
conduct any kind of meaningful analysis).
In January 2008, Plaintiff saw her family practice physician, Dr. Davis, with an
Dr. Davis gave no explanation of any particular functional
limitations, but stated as follows:
[Plaintiff was] probably disabled at least from the fibrosistis. She said Dr.
Jake told her that he would suggest getting some other kind of job which
she is going to do. In the scheme of things she has this pain problem that
has been diagnosed as fibrositis plus bipolar disorder with chronic anxiety
and panic disorder that is preventing her from working. I’m not for sure
how she can keep down a full-time job particularly with panic disorder but
that remains to be seen.
(Tr. 906). In March 2008, Plaintiff told Dr. Davis that she was “applying for disability.”
Dr. Davis stated that Plaintiff “has fibromyalgia [and] panic disorder. I think both of
which are principle reasons she is disabled.” (Tr. 905).
In April 2008, Plaintiff told Dr. Davis that she was upset with her long-term
insurance company “because they say she is ready to work.” Dr. Davis told Plaintiff that
if Dr. Jakes [the rheumatologist] does not feel that she is disabled in any
way that the only thing I could do would be to get another rheumatologist to
see her and see what they think. She insists that Dr. Jakes told her when she
saw him that she would not be able to go back to work for Shaw because of
the magnitude of the work that she had to do. I told her I have not seen any
records that would indicate that one way or the other. That my thoughts
always have been that this has been more of a psychiatric problem because
of panic disorder, anxiety, depression, etc.
(Tr. 904). In May 2008, Plaintiff told Dr. Davis that “she [was] feeling a lot better” but
that she was still “not able to work.” Dr. Davis stated that he “[did not] know that
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fibromyalgia is contributing to that or not. I think it is primarily her anxiety and panic
disorder that I felt was the most logical explanation on why she was not able to work.”
(Tr. 903). In June 2008, Plaintiff told Dr. Davis that she could not work and was “unable
to work at Shaw [her prior workplace].” Dr. Davis did not comment on Plaintiff’s
disability status. (Tr. 902). Plaintiff argues that this evidence proves that she is disabled.
See Pl. Br. at 11.
An independent review of the record demonstrates that Plaintiff failed to submit
evidence from Dr. Davis or any other physician regarding any of her particular functional
limitations. See, e.g., Moore, 405 F. 3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005)(ALJ reasonably
discounted physician’s opinion which failed to give specific functional limitations.).
Indeed, treating source opinions on issues that are reserved to the Commissioner are never
entitled to controlling weight or even any special significance.
20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(d)(1)-(3); Caulder v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 872, 878 (11th Cir. 1986). Indeed, the
ALJ identified this as the first reasons for assigning “little weight” to Dr. Davis’s
opinions. (Tr. 1047)
Furthermore, the court concludes that the ALJ identified substantial evidence upon
which he could base his residual functional capacity finding.
See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(e)(2)(i-(ii) (ALJ may consider opinions of State agency medical consultants,
who are “highly qualified physicians . . . who are also experts in Social Security disability
evaluation”); Moore, 405 F. 3d at 1212-13 (upholding ALJ’s RFC finding which was
based on examination findings and claimant’s own statements of capabilities.).
Specifically, the ALJ considered the objective findings and statements of Dr. Ellis, a
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consultative examining physician (Tr. 1042) and Dr. Sullivan, a State agency physician
(Tr. 1047), and thoroughly discussed the treatment notes of record. (Tr. 1041-1047). The
ALJ found that Plaintiff’s physical impairments caused some significant limitations, but
that she could still perform the requirements of light work, as long as she was limited to
frequent (as opposed to constant) fine manipulation. (Tr. 1041-42).
Moreover, the ALJ identified “good cause” to discount Dr. Davis’ conclusory
opinion. See Phillips, 357 F. 3d at 1241. Indeed, the ALJ found that Dr. Davis’ opinion
was not well-supported by his own examination notes, was inconsistent with the medical
evidence as a whole, and was conclusory and otherwise unsupported.
Additionally, the ALJ cited specific reasons to discount Dr. Davis’s opinion.
Specifically, he noted Dr. Davis’s apparent and repeated doubt that Plaintiff was disabled;
his statements that he believed her mental impairments played more of a role than her
physical impairments in her ability to work; the inconsistency of his statements with the
other opinions of record; his failure to provide any support for his conclusory statements;
and his statement to Plaintiff that if Dr. Jakes would not provide documentation
supporting her disability, the best he could was to refer her to another rheumatologist.
(Tr. 1047). Thus, the Court concludes based upon a review of the record as a whole that
the ALJ’s RFC finding is supported by substantial evidence. Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211.
Plaintiff, however, argues that since the ALJ was uncertain about Dr. Davis’s
opinion, he was required to recontact Dr. Davis. See Pl. Br. at 13-14. The Court
disagrees. First, it appears the ALJ understood fully Dr. Davis’s opinion. Indeed, the
ALJ stated that it was
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“unclear if this is Dr. Davis’s opinion or simply a notation of [Plaintiff’s]
subjective allegations regarding her in ability to work. In any event it
appears Dr. Davis is (or was at some point) of the opinion that claimant
is disabled. This is an issue reserved to the Commissioner. . . “
(Tr. 1047 (emphasis added)). Second, the Eleventh Circuit has held that there is no duty
to recontact a treating or examining physician when the ALJ had the necessary
information to determine the claimant’s impairments, residual functional capacity, and
ability to work. Robinson v. Astrue, 365 F. App’x 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010). After An
independent review of the record, the Court is convinced that the ALJ had the necessary
information to determine the Plaintiff’s impairments, ability to work and residual
functional capacity. Accordingly, the Court concludes that Plaintiff’s argument the ALJ
erred by failing to recontact Dr. Davis is meritless.
Pursuant to the findings and conclusions detailed in this Memorandum Opinion,
the Court concludes that the ALJ’s non-disability determination is supported by
substantial evidence and proper application of the law. It is, therefore, ORDERED that
the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A separate judgment is entered
DONE this 20th day of March, 2015.
/s/ Terry F. Moorer
TERRY F. MOORER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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