Garrison v. Astrue
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Charles S. Coody on 8/8/2011. (wcl, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ALFRETTA Q. GARRISON,
Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:10cv484-CSC
The plaintiff applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., alleging that she was unable to work because
of a disability. Her application was denied at the initial administrative level. The plaintiff
then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
Following the hearing, the ALJ also denied the claim. The Appeals Council rejected a
subsequent request for review. 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 pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). The parties have consented to the United States Magistrate Judge conducting all
proceedings in this case and ordering the entry of final judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
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.
636(c)(1) and M.D. Ala. LR 73.1. Based on the court’s review of the record in this case and
the briefs of the parties, the court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner should
II. 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 . . .
To make this determination,2 the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Is the person presently unemployed?
Is the person’s impairment severe?
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?
Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
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
answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of “not
A “physical or mental impairment” is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).3
The standard of 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). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of
the record which supports 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).
III. The Issues
A. Introduction. Plaintiff Alfretta Garrison (“Garrison”) was 34 years old at the
alleged date of onset and 36 years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. Her prior
work experience includes work as a woodworking hand sander. (R. 24-25). Following the
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).
hearing, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff has severe impairments of “diabetes requiring
the use of insulin pump; diabetes related neuropathy in her lower extremities; and obesity.”
(R. 15). The ALJ also concluded that Garrison’s bi-lateral carpal tunnel syndrome did not
constitute a severe impairment because it did not cause more than a minimal limitation on
her ability to perform work activity. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff could
perform her past relevant work as a woodworking hand sander, and thus, she was not
disabled. (R. 25).
B. Plaintiff’s Claim. As stated by the plaintiff, the single issue for the Court’s
review is “[w]hether the ALJ erred by improperly interpreting medical evidence and finding
that the impairment of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome was a non-severe impairment.” (Pl’s
Br., doc. # 11 at 2).
The plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider her bilateral carpal tunnel
syndrome a severe impairment at step 2 of the sequential analysis. The severity step is a
threshold inquiry which allows only “claims based on the most trivial impairment to be
rejected.” McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1031 (11th Cir. 1986). A physical impairment
is defined as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(c). A severe impairment is one that is more
than “a slight abnormality or combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more
than a minimal effect on an individual’s ability to work.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137,
154 fn. 12 (1987) citing with approval Social Security Ruling 85-28 at 37a. The plaintiff
has the “burden of showing her impairment is “severe” within the meaning of the Act.”
McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030.
In finding that the plaintiff’s bi-lateral carpal tunnel syndrome was not a “severe
impairment,” the ALJ reviewed the plaintiff’s medical records. “Unless the claimant can
prove, as early as step two, that she is suffering from a severe impairment, she will be denied
disability benefits.” Id. at 1031. According to Garrison, “the ALJ improperly interpreted
medical information without the benefit of medical opinions or evaluations to assist in the
determination of the issue of severity of the impairment, and the issue of what limitation, if
any, specifically are caused by the impairment.” (Pl’s Br., doc. # 11, at 4). Beyond this
conclusory statement, she fails to apply, with any degree of specificity, any law to the unique
facts of this case. It is not the court’s function to distill every generality into a cogent
argument. Garrison has the obligation, in the first instance, to demonstrate that she can no
longer perform her past relevant work, and she is entitled to benefits. See Lucas v. Sullivan,
918 F.2d 1567, 1571 (11th Cir. 1990) (the claimant bears the burden of establishing the
existence of a disability). “Even though Social Security courts are inquisitorial, not
adversarial, in nature, claimants must establish that they are eligible for benefits.” Ingram v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Doughty v. Apfel,
245 F.3d 1274, 1281 (11th Cir. 2001)). See also Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1209
(11th Cir. 1988).
More importantly, however, after carefully reviewing the medical records, the court
concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that the plaintiff’s bilateral carpal tunnel syndrom does not constitute a “severe impairment.” Garrison applied
for supplemental security income benefits on August 22, 2006, alleging disability based on
diabetes. The court has scoured Garrison’s medical records and is unable to find one
instance in which she complained to her treating physician or her endocrinologist about pain
in her hands or wrists even though she began treatment for diabetes in 2000.4 During the
administrative hearing, Garrison testified that the “nerve damage” in her feet rendered her
disabled. (R. 35). When she applied for benefits, Garrison did not mention pain in her hands
as a condition that limited her ability to work. (R. 121). On October 26, 2006, Garrison
completed a six-page, fifteen question physical activities questionnaire in which she
described pain in her feet and an inability to walk. (R. 135-40). Not once did she describe
pain in her wrists or hands. In fact, when describing how her daily activities are affected by
her impairments, she indicated that when she does housework and yard work, she had to take
breaks because of the pain in her feet. (R. 135, 137-38). She indicated that she had no
difficulty with her personal care (R. 136). Although Garrison underwent a consultative
physical examination on December 11, 2006, she did not report any problems with her hands
or wrists. (R. 264-70). It was not until December 18, 2006, that tests indicated that she
While the majority of the plaintiff’s medical records are illegible, the court has not found a single
instance where Garrison complained about pain in her hands.
might be suffering from mild median neuropathy in her wrists. (R. 303). Treatment notes
from September 19, 2008, reflect Garrison’s active problems which include diabetes, acute
nasopharyngitis, acute sinusitis, tooth loss, headache, dental disorder and periodontal disease.
(R. 355-56). Garrison did not report any difficulty with her hands or wrists. On September
10, 2008, Garrison completed a new patient questionnaire for the University of Alabama
Birmingham School of Medicine Endocrinology Clinic. (R. 371-374). She specifically
indicated that she had no numbness in her hands or feet. (R. 373). While the record indicates
that the plaintiff has been diagnosed with mild median neuropathy, the medical evidence in
the record does not suggest that Garrison’s bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome has more than
a minimal effect on her ability to perform basic work activity. Garrison has failed to
demonstrate that she is unable to work. No treating physician has opined that she should not
perform work. This court must accept the factual findings of the Commissioner if they are
supported by substantial evidence and based upon the proper legal standards. Bridges v.
Bowen, 815 F.2d 622 (11th Cir. 1987). Garrison fails to point out to the court any evidence
in the record which shows that the mild neuropathy in her hands in any way compromises her
ability to do work. Consequently, the court concludes that Garrison has failed to meet her
burden of establishing that the ALJ’s decision regarding the severity of that impairment was
not supported by substantial evidence.
The court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that plaintiff is not disabled. Thus, the
court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence
and is due to be affirmed.
A separate order will be entered.
Done this 8th day of August, 2011.
/s/Charles S. Coody
CHARLES S. COODY
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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