Davis v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Susan Russ Walker on 3/31/2016. (wcl, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CHRYSTAL HARRIS DAVIS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO. 1:14cv730-SRW
Plaintiff Chrystal Harris Davis commenced this action on August 6, 2014, pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the
Commissioner denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits,
and supplemental security income benefits. On October 26, 2012, the Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) issued an adverse decision.1 The Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request
for review, and the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. This
case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have
consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(c). For the reasons stated herein, the court finds that the Commissioner’s ruling is due
to be affirmed.
Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing before the ALJ.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is narrowly circumscribed. The
function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is
supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221
(11th Cir. 2002). This court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the
decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It
is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A reviewing court “may not
decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the
[Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words,
this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner’s findings of fact de novo, even
where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.
While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial
evidence, it reviews the ALJ’s legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of
validity attaches to the ALJ’s determination of the proper legal standards to be applied.
Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ’s
application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for
determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s
decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of
disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the
Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability
to do 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 twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide
evidence about a “physical or mental impairment” that “must result from anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.
The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:
whether the claimant is currently employed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals an impairment
listed by the Commissioner;
whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to formerly applicable C.F.R.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir.
1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The sequential
analysis goes as follows:
Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will
automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If
the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work,
the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can
perform some other job.
Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The
Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in
significant numbers. Id.
Plaintiff alleges a disability onset date of May 11, 2011, and total disability due to
a tumor behind one eye, fluid on her spine, and a pinched nerve. At the first step of the
sequential process, the ALJ determined that plaintiff meets the insurance requirements of
the Social Security Act through June 30, 2013. At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date.
Proceeding to the third step, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from the following severe
impairments: pseudotumor cerebri; headaches; benign intracranial hypertension; ocular
hypertension; and diabetes mellitus. At step four, the ALJ concluded that none of the
plaintiff’s severe impairments, individually or collectively, meets a listed impairment in 20
C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (2014). At step five, the ALJ developed a residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) assessment permitting plaintiff to perform a full range of light work. The
ALJ found that plaintiff could return to her past relevant work as a security supervisor in a
prison, and that such work is not precluded by the RFC. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff
is not disabled.
Plaintiff makes two arguments in support of this appeal: (1) the RFC does not
conform with the medical evidence of record and governing legal standards, and (2) the
ALJ committed reversible error by failing to take testimony from a vocational expert prior
to finding that plaintiff can return to her past relevant work. Upon review of the record, the
court concludes that these contentions are without merit.
The plaintiff faults the ALJ for “inconsistencies between [state agent evaluator Dr.
Scott] Trouger’s RFC and his own.” (Doc. # 12 at p. 5). However, the Commissioner
alone, and not a medical source, determines an RFC. Robinson v. Astrue, 364 F. App’x
993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he task of determining a claimant’s [RFC] … is within the
province of the ALJ, not of doctors). Dr. Trouger supplied opinion evidence and a medical
source statement, which is different from an RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513, 404.1545,
404.1546, 416.913, 416.945, 416.946. Medical source statements are not determinative,
and the ALJ is within his discretion to credit all, part, or none of the opinions of a medical
source’s proffered evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3) (“We will assess your residual
functional capacity based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence.”). “Indeed, the
pertinent regulations state that the ALJ has the responsibility for determining a claimant’s
RFC.” Castle v. Colvin, 557 F. App'x 849, 853-54 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1546(c)). The ALJ is under no obligation to adopt a medical source statement’s
findings as his RFC finding. In this case, the ALJ’s RFC determination is based on
substantial evidence and is in accordance with controlling law.
Plaintiff’s second argument on appeal—that the ALJ was under an obligation to
hear testimony from a vocational expert before concluding that plaintiff could return to her
past work as a security supervisor—is premised on an incorrect reading of the ALJ’s
written decision. The RFC determination contained no restrictions. However, the plaintiff
argues that the ALJ implicitly found non-exertional limitations because he discussed
medical evidence in explaining his reasoning for the RFC finding that plaintiff can perform
a full range of light work. Under the facts of the present appeal, the court declines plaintiff’s
invitation to revise the ALJ’s RFC to add “implicit” non-exertional restrictions not actually
found by the ALJ, in order to determine at plaintiff’s behest that vocational expert
testimony was required concerning such restrictions. See Jarrett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
422 F. App'x 869, 871 (11th Cir. 2011) (One manner of determining whether the claimant
is able to perform other work is for the ALJ to ask a VE hypothetical questions to establish
whether someone with the limitations that the ALJ “’has previously determined that the
claimant has’” will be able to secure employment in the national economy.)(citation
That notwithstanding, the plaintiff bears the burden to show that her limitations
prevent her from returning to her past relevant work. See Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d
1356, 1359 (11th Cir. 1991). The evidence of record includes a “Work History Report” and
a “Function Report,” and the ALJ relied on those documents and other relevant evidence
to conclude that plaintiff can return to her former job as a security advisor in light of her
RFC. This finding is based on substantial evidence.
Accordingly, and for the reasons discussed, the decision of the Commissioner will
be AFFIRMED by a separate order.
DONE, this the 31st day of March, 2016.
/s/ Susan Russ Walker
Susan Russ Walker
Chief United States Magistrate Judge
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