Williams v. Astrue

Filing 21

MEMORANDUM OPINION that the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. Signed by Honorable Wallace Capel, Jr on 9/4/08. (Attachments: # 1 appeal checklist)(vma, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA N O R T H E R N DIVISION R O L A N D SCOTT WILLIAMS, P la in tif f , v. M IC H A E L J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, D e f e n d a n t. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) C IV IL ACTION NO. 2:07cv699-WC M E M O R A N D U M OPINION I. INTRODUCTION P lain tiff Roland Scott Williams (Williams) applied for disability insurance benefits p u rs u a n t to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 401 et seq. (2000) (the Act), a lle g in g he was unable to work because of a disability. Williams's applications were denied a t the initial administrative level. Williams then requested and received a hearing before an A d m in i str a tiv e Law Judge (ALJ). Following the hearing, the ALJ also denied the claims. T h e Appeals Council rejected a subsequent request for review. The ALJ's decision c o n se q u e n tly became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (C o m m issio n er).1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The case is n o w before the Court for review under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c), b o th parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment 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. 1 b y the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. #11); D e f .'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. #10). Based on the Court's review of the record and the b rie f s of the parties, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision. II. STANDARD OF REVIEW U n d e r 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the p e rso n is unable to e n g a g e in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically d e ter m in a b le 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 o f not less than 12 months. 4 2 U.S.C. 423(d)(1)(A).2 T o make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five step, sequential e v a lu a tio n 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 i m p a i r m e n ts set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? [the Listing of I m p a i rm e n t s] (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? A n affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next q u e s tio n , or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative a n sw e r to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of "not d is a b le d ." 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. 2 2 M c D a n ie l v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).3 T h e burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F .3 d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). A claimant establishes a prima facie case of qualifying d is a b ility once they have carried the burden of proof from Step 1 through Step 4. At Step 5, th e burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show there are a significant number o f 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 F u n c tio n a l Capacity (RFC). Id. at 1238-39. RFC is what the claimant is still able to do d e s p ite his impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It also c a n contain both exertional and nonexertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At the fifth step, th e ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if th e re are jobs available in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To d o this, the ALJ can either use the Medical Vocational Guidelines 4 (grids) or call a vocational e x p e rt. Id. at 1239-40. T h e grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or lig h t work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. E a c h factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an 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) (Unit A). 4 3 See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2. 3 in d iv id u a l. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorilyre q u ire d finding of "Disabled" or "Not Disabled." Id. The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. This Court must f in d 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 e v id e n c e is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence a s a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. P e ra le s, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of th e record which support the decision of the ALJ, but instead must view the record in its e n t ir e ty and take account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. H ills m a n v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179 (11th Cir. 1986). [The court must] . . . scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the re a so n a b le n e ss of the [Commissioner's] . . . factual findings. . . . No similar p r e s u m p t io n of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] . . . legal conclusions, in c lu d in g determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating c la im s . W a lk e r v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). III. ISSUES A. Introduction Williams was forty-one years old and had an eighth grade education at the time of the h e a ri n g before the ALJ. (Tr. 20, 76, 587). Williams's past relevant work experience 4 inclu d ed work as a truck driver and heavy equipment operator. (Tr. 20, 587, 596). F o llo w in g the administrative hearing, and employing the five step process, the ALJ found W i l l i a m s had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (Step 1 ). (Tr. 26). At Step 2, the ALJ found Williams suffered from the severe impairments of lu m b a r disc disease. Id. The ALJ nonetheless found Williams did not possess an impairment o r combination of impairments that met or equaled the criteria of any listed impairment set f o rth in the Listing of Impairments (Step 3). Id. At Step 4, the ALJ found Williams could n o t perform his past relevant work based upon his RFC. Id. At Step 5, the ALJ determined W illia m s possessed the RFC to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national e c o n o m y. (Tr. 27). Consequently, the ALJ found Williams had not been disabled since the a lle g e d onset date. B. Williams's Claims W ill iam s sets forth four issues: (1) whether the ALJ's RFC finding lacked the support o f substantial evidence; (2) whether the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for rejecting th e medical opinions expressed by Dr. Boyington; (3) whether the ALJ failed to demonstrate th a t there were significant jobs existing in the national economy that Williams could perform; a n d (4) whether the ALJ erred in rejecting Williams's pain testimony. (Doc. #13 at 11). 5 IV . DISCUSSION A. W h e th e r the ALJ's RFC finding lacked the support of substantial evidence. W illia m s argues the ALJ improperly relied on Doctor Roland Rivard's (Dr. Rivard) f in d in g s in making the RFC determination, and Dr. Rivard's findings conflict with the su b stan tial evidence of record, specifically, the medical opinions expressed by Williams's trea tin g physician, Doctor Roger Boyington (Dr. Boyington). Williams does not contest Dr. R iv a r d ' s methodology, only his findings, as they conflict with Dr. Boyington's conclusions. W illiam s fails to express what substantial evidence, other than Dr. Boyington's opinions, is in conflict with the ALJ's RFC. In making the RFC determination, the ALJ explicitly rejected the opinion of Dr. B o yin g to n and instead relied on Dr. Rivard's findings. If the ALJ's determination to rely on D r. Rivard was correct, then his RFC assessment was proper. Because Williams has c h a llen g e d the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Boyington's opinion in his second claim, the Court will ad d ress the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Rivard's findings and his rejection of Dr. Boyington's o p in io n in subsection B. B. W h e th e r the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for rejecting the m e d ic a l opinions expressed by Dr. Boyington. Generally, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to substantial weight. See 20 C .F .R . 404.1527, 416.927 (2007); see also Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 516 (11th C ir. 1984). Thus, Dr. Boyington's opinion "`must be given substantial or considerable 6 w e ig h t unless `good cause' is shown to the contrary.'" Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1 2 4 0 (11th Cir 2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). "[ T h e Eleventh Circuit] has concluded "good cause" exists when the: (1) treating physician's o p in io n was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) tre a tin g physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical re c o rd s ." Id. at 1240-41. Further, "[w]hen electing to disregard the opinion of a treating p h ys ic ia n , the ALJ must clearly articulate its reasons." Id. at 1241. T h e ALJ rejected Dr. Boyington's opinion because the opinion was not consistent w ith Dr. Boyington's own treatment notes and because the opinion was not bolstered by the e v id e n c e . (Tr. 23). Dr. Boyington did not indicate Williams was disabled until he co m p leted the functional capacities evaluation form ("FCE form") on 3 March 2005. (Tr. 3 5 2 ). However, on 31 January 2005, Dr. Boyington noted that Williams could ambulate w ith o u t difficulty (Tr. 369). In fact, throughout Dr. Boyington's treatment notes he indicated W illiam s could perform light work, it was not until the FCE form was completed that Dr. B o yin g to n changed his opinion, and he offered no explanation for that change. In addition, D o c t o rs Prince and Volkman described Williams as capable of light work. (Tr. 23). Thus, b e c au s e Dr. Boyington's opinion was conclusory and inconsistent with his own treatment n o te s, and was not bolstered by the evidence, the ALJ could properly discount his opinion. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240. Williams's only argument as to the ALJ's reliance on Dr. Rivard (HealthSouth 7 ev alua tio n ) is that the ALJ improperly relied on Dr. Rivard's findings after rejecting Dr. B o yin g to n 's findings. In other words, Williams does not contest Dr. Rivard's reasoning an d /or methodology, he merely argues the ALJ should have relied on Dr. Boyington's o p in io n . Once the ALJ determined Dr. Boyington's opinion was not credible, the ALJ could re ly on Dr. Rivard's findings if they contained credible objective findings. The ALJ s p e c if ic a lly stated that he relied on Dr. Rivard's findings because the HealthSouth evaluation w a s made up entirely of objective tests, and because Dr. Rivard did not rely on the subjective c o m p lain ts of Williams, but actually tested the consistency of Williams's efforts in p e rf o rm in g various lifting tasks. (Tr.23). Further, as the ALJ explains, Dr. Rivard's findings w e r e consistent with the other objective medical evidence in the record, including Dr. B o yin g to n 's treatment notes. Id. Thus, the ALJ's reliance upon Dr. Rivard's findings, after p ro p e rly rejecting those of Dr. Boyington, were reasonable and supported by the record as a whole. C. Whether the ALJ failed to demonstrate that there were significant jobs e x i stin g in the national economy that Williams could perform. Williams argues the ALJ failed to demonstrate there were significant jobs existing in th e national economy Williams could perform, because the ALJ failed to include the none x e r t i o n a l limitations from which Williams suffers, i.e. pain, in the hypothetical question p o s e d to the vocational expert ("VE"). Essentially, this claim challenges whether the ALJ p o s e d a proper question to the VE "which comprise[d] all of the claimant's impairments." 8 W ils o n v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir. 2002). O n c e the ALJ found Williams could no longer perform past relevant work, the ALJ w a s required to determine whether Williams could perform other jobs within the national e c o n o m y. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). The ALJ may make that d e te rm in a tio n through the aid of a VE. Id. at 1229. "In order for a VE's testimony to c o n stitu te substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question which comprises a ll of the claimant's impairments," id., "[b]ut the hypothetical need only include limitations s u p p o rte d by the record." Lanier v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 252 F.App'x 311, 315 (11th Cir. 2 0 0 7 ) (citing Jones, 190 F. 3d at 1229); see also Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1227. A s discussed below, the ALJ properly rejected Williams's pain testimony and was th e re f o re not required to include the non-exertional pain limitations advanced by Williams in the hypothetical question posed to the VE. D. W h e th e r the ALJ erred in rejecting Williams's pain testimony. B e f o re an ALJ can consider the subjective pain testimony of a claimant, the claimant m u s t satisfy two parts of a three-part test. A claimant must show "evidence of an underlying m e d ic a l condition, and either (1) objective medical evidence to confirm the severity of the a lle g e d pain arising from that condition, or (2) that the objectively determined medical c o n d itio n is of a severity that can reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged pain." F o o te v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). 9 In this case, the ALJ found that while Williams suffered back and nerve problems (Tr. 2 9 1 , 297), and struggled despite physical therapy (Tr. 305), the objective medical evidence in this case showed that Williams retained the ability to perform light work. (Tr. 23). As the A L J pointed out: Dr. Boyington's notes indicated Williams could perform light work; Dr. P rin c e and Dr. Volkman described Williams as capable of light work; and the HealthSouth ev alua tio n "described abilities consistent with a reduced range of medium work." (Tr. 23). T h e only evidence Williams can offer to satisfy the test is the properly rejected opinion of D r. Boyington. Thus, although Williams can show he suffered from an underlying medical condition, h e is unable to show "(1) objective medical evidence to confirm the severity of the alleged p a in arising from that condition, or (2) that the objectively determined medical condition is o f a severity that can reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged pain." Id. Therefore, th e ALJ properly rejected Williams's subjective pain testimony. V. CONCLUSION P u r s u a n t to the findings and conclusions detailed in this Memorandum Opinion and O r d e r, the Court concludes the ALJ's non-disability determination and denial of benefits is s u p p o rte d by substantial evidence. It is, therefore, ORDERED that the decision of the C o m m is s io n e r is AFFIRMED. A separate judgment is entered herewith. 10 D O N E this 4th day of September, 2008. /s/ Wallace Capel, Jr. WALLACE CAPEL, JR. U N IT E D STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 11

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