Piland v. Astrue (CONSENT)
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Wallace Capel, Jr on 2/21/2012. (wcl, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
EVELYN MARIE PILAND,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:11cv198-WC
Plaintiff, Evelyn Marie Piland, applied for disability insurance benefits under Titles
II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83c,
respectively. Her application was 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 a decision in which she found Plaintiff not disabled from the
alleged onset date. 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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. 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-five years old on the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 20. Plaintiff
completed the tenth grade and had past relevant work experience as a hotel housekeeper,
presser, and tacking machine operator. Tr. 31 & 20. Following the administrative hearing,
and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date of April 22, 2007. (Step 1) Tr. 16. At Step 2,
the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: “arthritis of the
foot, mild degenerative disc disease, and migraine headaches.” Tr. 16. The ALJ then found
that “the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled one of the listed impairments . . . .” (Step 3) Tr. 18. Next, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff “had the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of
sedentary work.” Tr. 18. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past
relevant work. (Step 4) Tr. 20. The ALJ next found that, “[c]onsidering the claimant’s age,
education, work experience, and [RFC],” and after consulting with a vocational expert, “there
are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can
perform.” Tr. 20. The ALJ identified the following occupations as examples: “document
preparer,” and “taper of printed circuits.” Tr. 21. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from April 20, 2007, through the date of this
decision.” Tr. 21.
Plaintiff presents three issues for this Court’s consideration in review of the ALJ’s
decision: (1) whether “the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of the consulting
neurologist;” (2) whether “the ALJ failed to provide specific rationale for rejecting
[Plaintiff’s] pain testimony;” and (3) whether “the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the effects
and resulting limitations caused by the combination of [Plaintiff’s] severe impairments.”
Pl.’s Brief (Doc. #12) at 6.
Whether the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of the consulting
Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Dr. Watson.
Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not state with particularity the weight she gave
Dr. Watson and “why she discredited his finding that the claimant would be unable to sustain
concentration and work for extended periods of time.” Pl.’s Brief (Doc. #13) at 6. Plaintiff
acknowledges that an ALJ may reject a medical opinion, but argues the ALJ failed to do so
with the requisite statement of particularity. See Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th
Cir. 1987). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ clearly specified the weight given to Dr.
Watson’s opinion and the reasons why. Def.’s Brief (Doc. #13) at 6-7.
Indeed, the ALJ clearly stated what weight she assigned Dr. Watson’s opinion. The
ALJ stated that she “gave only some weight to Dr. Watson’s opinion.” Tr. 19. The ALJ
went on to say that she only gave some weight to Dr. Watson’s opinion because he “did not
have the full medical record available when he performed his consultive examination” and
that “he based much of his opinion solely on the claimant’s subjective allegations.” Id.
Thus, the ALJ did “state with particularity the weight [s]he gave different medical opinions
and the reasons therefor.” Sharfarz, 825 F.2d at 279.
Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s decision to reject portions of Dr. Watson’s
opinion while formulating the RFC was unsupported by other medical evidence of record and
was contrary to Dr. Vyas’s opinion. Pl.’s Brief (Doc. #13) at 7. The Commissioner counters
that the ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence and is not in conflict
with Dr. Vyas’s opinions.
Plaintiff’s argument is backwards. It is Plaintiff’s burden to establish disability and
limitations in her ability to work. If Plaintiff fails to provide sufficient evidence of work
limitations, the ALJ will not find Plaintiff disabled. Furthermore, in formulating the RFC,
the ALJ “is free to reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary
conclusion.” Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985). In this case, the ALJ
articulated valid reasons for rejecting portions of Dr. Watson’s opinion. The ALJ also set
forth her reasons for the formulated RFC, discussing Plaintiff’s medical history and evidence
of record. Tr. 16-21; see Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (“The
RFC is an assessment, based upon all of the relevant evidence, of a claimant’s remaining
ability to do work despite her impairments.”).
Plaintiff’s argument that Dr. Watson’s opinion was supported by Dr. Vyas’s is
unavailing. Plaintiff points to Dr. Vyas’s notations that Plaintiff exhibited tenderness in parts
of her foot, suffered possible osteoarthritis involving the left knee joint, chronic foot pain,
possible foot fracture, headaches, and a history of constipation. Pl.’s Brief (Doc. #13) at 8.
Plaintiff argues that these findings “support Dr. Watson’s statements which suggests an
inability to work.” Id. Plaintiff does not express further how these findings support Dr.
Watson’s statements regarding Plaintiff’s inability to work. The ALJ rejected the portions
of Dr. Watson’s opinion that were based solely on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. The
ALJ accepted Dr. Watson and Dr. Vyas’s opinions relating to Plaintiff’s foot and her
headaches. The ALJ found those impairments, along with degenerative disc disease to be
severe impairments. Dr. Vyas did not opine that these impairments were disabling, and as
stated above, Dr. Watson’s opinions regarding the limiting nature of Plaintiff’s impairments
were not based on objective medical evidence, but on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.
Much of those opinions were not related to Plaintiff’s foot or migraines, but were related to
other complaints, such as overhead reaching, exposure to respiratory irritants, and hip and
flank pain. Plaintiff has failed to show that the RFC was in conflict with Dr. Vyas’s findings,
or that Dr. Vyas’s opinion somehow supported Dr. Watson’s statements and thus suggest an
inability to work.
Whether the ALJ failed to provide specific rationale for rejecting Plaintiff’s
Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to satisfy Social Security Ruling 96-7p’s
requirement that the ALJ articulate specific reasons for rejecting Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints of pain. The Commission counters that the ALJ did supply specific reasons for
rejecting Plaintiff’s complaints and articulated reasons for doing so that were supported by
the record. Def.’s Brief (Doc. #13) at 11.
A review of the record reveals that the ALJ articulated that she did not find Plaintiff’s
complaints fully credible and why. See Tr. 19. The ALJ specified that: Plaintiff’s allegation
regarding her need to elevate her legs “is not supported by the objective medical evidence
of record” and that since the middle of 2007 “the medical record does not document
significant swelling of the feet or legs;” that Plaintiff’s allegations of severe pain are not
supported by objective medical evidence, which documents improvement in the claimant’s
pain with the use of Lyrica;” and the inconsistency in the reporting of the severity of her
headaches. Id. Thus, the ALJ articulated both her finding that Plaintiff’s complaints were
not fully credible and specified which portions and why. The court finds this argument to
be without merit.
Whether the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the effects and resulting
limitations caused by the combination of Plaintiff’s severe impairments.
Here Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when she “failed to properly evaluate the
effects and resulting limitations imposed by the combination of [Plaintiff’s] severe
impairments.” Pl.’s Brief (Doc. #12) at 12 (emphasis in original). The Commissioner
counters that Plaintiff’s argument has no merit and ignores the plain language of the ALJ’s
The court notes that the ALJ expressly stated that “claimant does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed
impairments.” Tr. 18. Plaintiff concedes this statement, as she must, but then argues that it
does not appear the ALJ considered the combination of impairments when considering
Plaintiff’s ability to perform past relevant work. Pl.’s Brief (Doc. #12) at 13. The basis for
Plaintiff’s argument appears to be the ALJ’s discussion of Plaintiff’s impairments
individually. See Tr. 16-18. As the Commissioner points out, the ALJ is required to consider
all of Plaintiff’s impairments. That the ALJ discussed each impairment does not evidence
the ALJ’s failure to consider them together. Further, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not
perform past relevant work, so it is hard to imagine how Plaintiff was prejudiced, as she
claims, when determining whether she could perform past relevant work. Moreover, it is
clear from the ALJ’s decision and the RFC determination (which limits Plaintiff to less than
a full range of sedentary work) that the ALJ considered Plaintiff’s impairments individually
and in combination when making the disability determination. Accordingly, the court finds
this argument to be without merit.
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 21st day of February, 2012.
/s/ Wallace Capel, Jr.
WALLACE CAPEL, JR.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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