Daniels v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION. The Court will enter a separate final judgment. Signed by Honorable Judge Charles S. Coody on 5/5/2015. (dmn, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:14-cv-156-CSC
On May 6, 2011, Plaintiff Eric Daniels protectively filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and disability benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental
security income, alleging he became disabled on March 1, 2011. (R. 19, 134-44, 169). The
applications were denied initially and on reconsideration (R. 71-84, 87-88). Daniels then
requested a hearing by an administrative law judge (ALJ). Following a hearing held on
January 16, 2013 (R. 45-70), ALJ Michael D. Anderson issued a decision denying the claim
on April 25, 2013. (R. 19-40). The Appeals Council denied Daniels’s subsequent request for
review (R. 1-6). 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. §§
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.
405 (g) and 1383(c)(3). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented to entry
of final judgment by the United States Magistrate Judge. (Doc. 9; Doc. 10). 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 be affirmed.
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 determination2 the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
(1) Is the claimant presently unemployed?
(2) Is the claimant’s impairment severe?
(3) Does the claimant’s impairment meet or equal one of the specific
impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant 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 diagnostic techniques.
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.
Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “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. Daniels was born on April 16, 1960. (R. 48). He was fifty-three
years old on the date of the ALJ’s opinion in this case. (Doc. 40). Daniels has a high school
education. (R. 57-58). He served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1981. (R. 57-58,
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. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n.3
(1990). Cases arising under Title II are appropriately cited as authority in Title XVI cases. See, e.g., Sullivan,
493 U.S. at 525 n.3; Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408 (5th Cir. 1981) (Unit A).
279). He was stationed in El Paso, Texas, as a supply specialist refueling fixed-wing aircraft;
he did not see combat while in the military. (R. 57-58, 279). His past employment history
includes work as a concrete and semi-truck driver, a cook, a welder, and a hotel clerk. (R.
68). Daniels alleges that he is disabled due to major depression and post-traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”). In addition, Daniels has a history of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis
abuse and dependence.
The Findings of the ALJ
The ALJ found that Daniels has the following severe impairments: Major Depression,
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a history of Alcohol, Cocaine, and Cannabis abuse and
dependence. (R. 22). The ALJ concluded that these impairments, including the substance
abuse disorders, meet or medically equal the listings found in section 12.09 (substance
addiction disorders) and 12.04 (affective disorders) of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. (R. 22-23). The ALJ determined that, in the absence of substance abuse, Daniels’s
remaining limitations would be severe but would not meet or medically equal any of the
listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 23-24). Further, the ALJ
determined that, “[i]f the claimant stopped the substance use, and with medication
compliance and treatment, the claimant would have the residual functional capacity to
perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c),” with certain
limitations. (R. 25). The ALJ determined that, if he stopped substance use, Daniels would
not be able to perform his past relevant work (R. 38), but that he would be able to perform
other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 39). The ALJ
concluded that Daniels was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
because his substance abuse disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination
of disability and he would not be disabled if he stopped the substance abuse.
Daniels presents the following issues for review:
Whether the ALJ committed reversible error by improperly rejecting the opinion of
Daniels’s treating psychiatrist; and
Whether the ALJ erred by ignoring portions of the opinion of a consulting physician.
(Doc. 12 pp. 5, 13).
A disability claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating an inability to return
to his past work. Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567 (11 th Cir. 1990). In determining whether
the claimant has satisfied this burden, the Commissioner is guided by four factors: (1)
objective medical facts or clinical findings, (2) diagnoses of examining physicians, (3)
subjective evidence of pain and disability, e.g., the testimony of the claimant and his family
or friends, and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history. Tieniber v. Heckler, 720
F.2d 1251 (11th Cir. 1983). The ALJ must conscientiously probe into, inquire of and explore
all relevant facts to elicit both favorable and unfavorable facts for review. Cowart v.
Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735–36 (11th Cir. 1981). The ALJ must also state, with sufficient
specificity, the reasons for his decision referencing the plaintiff's impairments.
Any such decision by the Commissioner of Social Security which involves a
determination of disability and which is in whole or in part unfavorable to such
individual shall contain a statement of the case, in understandable language,
setting forth a discussion of the evidence, and stating the Commissioner’s
determination and the reason or reasons upon which it is based.
42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1).
Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s Decision to Reject the Treating
Psychologist’s Residual Functional Capacity Assessment
An individual is not considered “disabled” for purposes of social security disability
insurance or supplemental security income if alcoholism or drug addiction is “a contributing
factor material to the Commissioner’s determination that the individual is disabled.” 2
U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J). Therefore, when the ALJ finds that a
claimant is disabled and there is medical evidence of drug addiction or alcoholism, the ALJ
must determine whether the drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to
the determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.935(a); 404.1535(a). The key factor in
determining whether alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of a
disability (the “materiality determination”) is whether the claimant would still be found
disabled if he stopped using drugs or alcohol. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.935(b)(1); 404.1535(b)(1).
The ALJ makes this determination by first evaluating which of the claimant’s physical and
mental limitations would remain if the claimant stopped using drugs or alcohol. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.935(b); 404.1535(b). The ALJ then must determine whether any or all of the
remaining limitations would be disabling; if the remaining limitations are not disabling, then
the ALJ must find that the claimant’s drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor
material to the determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.935(b); 404.1535(b). However,
if the ALJ determines that the remaining limitations would be disabling, the ALJ must
conclude that the claimant is “disabled independent of [his] ... alcoholism and ... [his] ...
alcoholism is not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.935(b); 404.1535(b).
As noted in the ALJ’s opinion, Daniels has an extensive history of treatment for
depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. In February 2012, during
a time when he had relapsed and was not compliant with his mental health treatment (R.
1039-40 1046, 1058), one of Daniels’s treating physicians, Dr. Margaret Bok, opined that he
was unable to work a full time job due to major depression, PTSD, and polysubstance abuse,
though he had been “sober since June” with “sobriety off and on.” (R. 888). On January 24,
2013, during another period when Daniels had relapsed and was not compliant with his
mental health treatment, Dr. Bok completed a mental residual functional capacity assessment
form in which she opined that, as a result of his “current psychiatric/psychological
impairment[s],” Daniels had marked limitations in the following functional abilities: ability
to relate to other people; ability to maintain concentration, pace and attention for extended
periods of at least 2 hours; ability to sustain a routine without special supervision; ability to
perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual;
understand, carry out and remember instructions; respond appropriately to supervision;
respond appropriately to co-workers; respond to customary work pressures; respond
appropriately to changes in the work setting; use good judgment on the job; perform
complex, repetitive, or varied tasks, and behave in an emotionally stable manner. (R. 102425). In support of her opinion, Dr. Bok cited Daniels’s history of quitting jobs or being fired
and noted that he “cannot cope with stress.” (R. 1025). She opined that drug and alcohol
abuse were material factors regarding Daniels’s mental condition, that Daniels had sustained
no permanent damage as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, and that, if drug and alcohol use
were to stop, there would be no change in Daniels’s functional limitations. (R. 1025).
In his opinion, the ALJ stated that he “agree[d] with Dr. Bok’s opinion that the
claimaint’s drug and alcohol use is a material factor regarding his mental condition.
However [the ALJ did] not agree with her opinion that the claimant’s level of functioning
would not improve in the absence of substance abuse.” (R. 35).
Daniels argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Bok’s opinion that the marked
limitations reflected in her residual functional capacity assessment would persist in the
absence of substance abuse. Daniels contends that, because Dr. Bok is his treating physician,
her February 2012 opinion about his ability to work and her January 2013 opinion regarding
his residual functional capacity in the absence of substance abuse are entitled to great weight
unless good cause is shown to the contrary. It is true that the medical opinion of a treating
physician is entitled to substantial or controlling weight unless the ALJ articulates good cause
for rejecting that opinion. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Lewis v.
Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). However, a treating physician’s opinions
on legal issues that are reserved to the Commissioner are not considered medical opinions
and are not entitled to any special weight. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Issues
reserved to the Commissioner include opinions that the claimant is “disabled” or “unable to
work” and opinions regarding the claimant’s residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Thus, Dr. Bok’s opinion regarding Daniels’s ability to work and
his residual functional capacity in the absence of substance abuse is not a “medical opinion”
and is not entitled to any special weight.4
Although the Commissioner is the final authority for determining a claimant’s residual
functional capacity and whether the claimant can work, the Commissioner is required to
consider “all of the medical findings and evidence that support a medical source’s statement”
that a claimant is unable to work, as well as all medical source opinions regarding the
claimant’s residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). The ALJ did
so in this case, as is reflected in the ALJ’s thorough discussion of the extensive evidence in
Despite making arguments to the contrary, Daniels himself appears to recognize this fact. See
Plaintiff’s brief, Doc. 12 p. 9: “The ALJ further erred by stating that ‘I agree with Dr. Bok’s opinion that the
claimant’s drug and alcohol use is a material factor regrading his mental condition. However, I do not agree
with her opinion that the claimant’s level of functioning would not improve in the absence of substance
abuse.’ (Tr. 34). . . . As an initial matter, the concept of materiality is defined by the Commissioner’s
regulations and Rulings and is a legal term of art (see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535, 416.935; SSR 13-2p).
Although Dr. Bok is Mr. Daniels’ treating psychiatrist, she is not a legal expert and is not empowered to
make a conclusion regarding materiality. Indeed, the question whether DAA is ‘a material factor in regards
to the patient’s mental condition,’ as Dr. Bok stated (Tr. 1025), is not at all the same as the question posed
by the regulations, i.e. whether DAA is ‘a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination
that the individual is disabled.’ SSR 13-2p, 2013 WL 621536, *2. Thus, the ALJ’s reliance upon this portion
of Dr. Bok’s opinion is erroneous as a matter of law and should be rejected.”
this case, including Dr. Bok’s opinions.
The ALJ noted that Dr. Bok’s February 2012 opinion that Daniels had permanent
conditions that prevented him from being able to work at full-time job was entitled to “little
weight regarding Daniels’s ability to work during periods of sobriety” because that opinion
was inconsistent with Dr. Bok’s own records, including the fact that Dr. Bok consistently
assigned Daniels a Global Assessment Score (GAF) of 55, which is reflective of moderate
symptoms and moderate functional limitations. (R. 34). The court notes that, in her February
2012 opinion, Dr. Bok specifically stated that one of the permanent medical conditions that
prevented Daniels from being able to work was “polysubstance abuse” “sober since June –
sobriety off and on.” (R. 888). Thus, Dr. Bok’s February 2012 opinion is not a statement
of Daniels’s ability to work in the absence of substance abuse, and there is no error in the
ALJ’s conclusion that the opinion was due “little weight regarding the claimant’s ability to
work during periods of sobriety.” (R. 34) (emphasis added). In fact, the ALJ’s opinion is in
complete agreement with Dr. Bok’s February 2012 opinion that Daniels is disabled when all
of his impairments, including substance abuse, are considered. (R. 22-24; R. 888). See 20
C.F.R. §§ 416.935(b)(1); 404.1535(b)(1) (providing that the key factor in determining
whether alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of a disability is
whether the claimant would still be found disabled if he stopped using drugs or alcohol).
The ALJ provided the following specific reason for rejecting Dr. Bok’s January 2013
opinion regarding Daniel’s residual functional capacity in the absence of substance abuse:
On January 15, 2013, the day prior to the hearing, the claimant presented to Dr.
Bok and reported that he had had a relapse. (Exhibit 18F) The claimant
reported symptoms of depression and being overwhelmed with having to care
for his ill father. The claimant reported that he had been off medication for two
months. After the hearing, Dr. Bok prepared a Mental Residual Functional
Capacity Assessment and opined that the claimant was unable to work because
of marked functional limitations. (Exhibit 17F) Dr. Bok also opined that drug
and/or alcohol abuse is a material factor in regards to the claimant's mental
condition; and that if drug and/or alcohol abuse were to stop, there would not
be any change in the claimant's limitations. I agree with Dr. Bok’s opinion that
the claimant's drug and alcohol use is a material factor regarding his mental
condition. However, I do not agree with her opinion that the claimant's level
of functioning would not improve in the absence of substance abuse. The
record includes periods of sobriety in which the claimant’s level of functioning
did improve with sobriety.
As noted by the ALJ and confirmed by Dr. Bok’s treatment notes, the record does
contain evidence that Daniels’s level of functioning improved with sobriety. For example,
as noted by the ALJ (R. 28), on June 9, 2010, Daniels reported that he had been free of
alcohol and illicit drugs and that his depression medicine helped him with motivation. (R.
315). Although he had recently relapsed to substance abuse and quit his post-secondary
education program, on June 9, 2010 he was interested in obtaining a letter from his doctor
that would allow him to return to school. (R. 315, 317). The ALJ noted that mental health
treatment notes from August 2011 through February 2012, a period in which Daniels
maintained sobriety, indicated that Daniels experienced improvement in his condition. (R.
28, 34). In August 2011, Daniels moved in with his father, reported that he was doing well,
was keeping himself busy by cutting grass and doing yard work and other odd jobs, and
planned to make money by cutting hair. (R. 814). Further, as the ALJ noted (R. 33-34, 37),
two consultative examinations were performed while Daniels had been sober for substantial
periods of time, and these examinations reflected much more moderate limitations than those
assigned by Dr. Bok, whose January 2013 residual functional capacity assessment was
completed during a period when Daniels had relapsed and was not compliant with his mental
health treatment. In fact, as the ALJ noted, prior to January 2013, Dr. Bok had last seen
Daniels in February 2012, and, in January 2013, Daniels had been drinking daily, used
marijuana and cocaine, and had not taken any mental health medications in over two months.
(R. 1044, 1047, 1051, 1058-59). Notations in Dr. Bok’s own records consistently assigned
Daniels GAF scores of 55 during periods of sobriety, which were consistent with moderate
functional limitations and inconsistent with Dr. Bok’s residual functional capacity
The court has independently reviewed the record and finds that it contains substantial
support for the ALJ’s conclusions regarding Daniels’s residual functional capacity and
improved functioning in the absence of substance abuse. This record documents a recurrent
cycle in which Daniels’s functioning improves with mental health treatment compliance and
sobriety. However, when Daniels is noncompliant with his mental health treatment and
relapses into substance abuse, he experiences increased symptoms of depression and PTSD,
as well as significant impairment in functioning. This cycle is detailed in the margin.5
See. e.g., 555 (February 9, 2009: Daniels reports no current substance abuse, has untreated
depression, and seeks job placement assistance); 473, 536 (February 19, 2009: Daniels checks into in-house
treatment for homelessness, depression, and substance abuse; “[H]e has been using alcohol, cocaine and
cannabis . . . and has also noted progressive worsening of his mood with comorbid anhedonia, low self
esteem, poor energy, decreased libido, and disrupted sleep for the past two months,” was “consumed with
drinking and drugs then losing motivation in activities”); 189, 320 (March 1, 2009: Daniels obtains a job as
a cook); 415 (April 2009: “Daniels seems genuinely interested in maintaining his sobriety and returning to
the productive work force. . . Daniels states that he has a good work ethic, but then loses this when alcohol
or drugs are involved.”); 361 (May 2009: after substance abuse and mental health treatment, diagnosis
included “major depressive disorder, recurrent, mild, in remission”); 332 (March 2010: Daniels reports using
cocaine); 189, 320 (April 2010: Daniels quit his job as a cook; he reports that he quit due to depression); 30102 (May 2010: Daniels reports that he has in a state of relapse to alcohol and substance abuse and quit school
due to increased depression); 278-79, 320, 317, 320 (May 19, 2010: Daniels reports that he has relapsed to
drug and alcohol abuse, was not taking depression medication because he “does not like to take medication,”
has quit school and his job, and is depressed); 315 (June 9, 2010: Daniels reports that he has been free of
alcohol and illicit drugs, that medication has helped him, that he has “improved energy level and improved
concentration,” and that he would like to try to go back to school); 309, 312, 314 (June 10, 2010: Daniels
seeks vocational rehabilitation and “is motivated for employment and within compliance with his [mental
health] provider and treatment”); 300, 302 ( June 29, 2010: Daniels has begun taking depression medications
and reports that he is free of drug and alcohol use); 189, 816 (July 1, 2010: Daniels began working as a
commercial concrete truck driver); 351 (October 2010: Daniels relapsed and began drinking alcohol again
daily); 289-91, 816 (April 2011: Daniels reports that he stopped taking medication and stopped reporting for
mental health treatment after he got his job driving concrete trucks, he has been drinking alcohol, is
depressed again, and has lost his job as a concrete truck driver due to nonattendence); 282-83 (May 4, 2011:
Daniels signs up for in-house 90-day substance abuse program; he has been using alcohol, cocaine, and
marijuana, and living with his father); 777, 783-85, 787 (June 15, 2011: Daniels checks into in-house
substance abuse and mental health program; he reports consuming 3-4 beers everyday and using marijuana;
he is now homeless because his father asked him to leave his house due to his alcohol use and failure to
contribute financially; Daniels also reports that although he “knows his meds,” he has “never” taken
outpatient medication appropriately because he has difficulty believing that he should take it and drinks
alcohol to treat his depression); 215 (June 15, 2011: Daniels self-reports to social security administration that
drinking and drug use affect his ability to do house work and his personal appearance, his ability to be
efficient and thorough, causes him to lack motivation and to not “care,” and causes him to isolate himself
and sink further into depression; he reports that when he drinks and uses drugs it is to treat his depression);
605 (July 19, 2011, during mental health and substance abuse treatment: “At present he feels that he is
managing his depression effectively and is gaining physical benefits as well [by treating his depression with
exercise rather than medication]. Veteran reports that he has lost approximately 18 pounds since he began
his exercise program and he feels really good about himself.”); 592 (July 2011: Daniels reports that he has
been off drugs, following a better diet, and exercising daily and is feeling well); 811-12 (August 5, 2011:
Dr. Denise Perone, Psychiatrist, remarks on his discharge report: “At first, he was willing to try meds, then
when he started running on a regular basis, he felt better so felt he no longer needed the meds. After stopping
the meds he became more depressed, and just as he started making some progress, he decided to leave the
program. This was unfortunate, because this is a man who has many work skills, but since he has been out
of the service he has been unable to keep a job for more than 2 months because he gets very depressed &
quits - this pattern is reflected in his behavior now, in that he is just getting somewhere in his therapy & he
feels compelled to quit. Unfortunately, he did not have any of his issues resolved when he decided it was time
to leave so that he will probably be back with us soon when the depression hits him hard again.”); 814
(August 8, 2011: Daniels reported that he was doing fine, things were going well, he was able to help around
As the ALJ noted, following periods of relapse, Daniels has a history of homelessness and
emergency room treatment and treatment at in-house mental health and substance abuse
programs, but there is no evidence of episodes of decompensation, emergency room
treatment, or inpatient hospitalization for any mental health problem in the absence of
substance abuse. (R. 36). Further, as the ALJ noted, Daniels has been able to work during
periods when he was sober and compliant with his medications. (R. 36). In sum, this record
contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s findings regarding Daniels’s improved
residual functional capacity when he maintains sobriety and is compliant with his mental
health treatment. (R. 25, 36).
Accordingly, the ALJ applied the correct legal standard by independently assessing
Daniels’s ability to work and his residual functional capacity in the absence of substance
abuse. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.935; 416.927(d); 404.1535; 404.1527(d). Substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s conclusion regarding Daniels’s residual functional capacity in the absence
of substance abuse. Therefore, the court finds no error in the ALJ’s rejection of Dr. Bok’s
opinions regarding Daniels’s ability to work and his residual functional capacity in the
absence of substance abuse.
the house and was keeping himself busy by cutting grass, doing yard work and odd jobs; he reported that he
planned to cut hair to earn money and to attend support groups to maintain his sobriety); 925-28 (December
7, 2011: after Daniels completed a 12 week depression support group in December 2011, and while on
medication, Daniels has a negative screening for alcohol abuse and a negative screen for depression; he
reports to Dr. Bok that his mood is better and he is functioning better than he was; Dr. Bok assigns a GAF
of 55); 1039-40 1046, 1058 (January 15, 2013: Dr. Bok notes that Daniels has applied for disability, relapsed
a couple of months ago and has been drinking and using cocaine and marijuana again, has not taken his
mental health medications for at least two months, and has not reported to Dr. Bok in close to one year).
The ALJ Did Not Err By Failing to Adopt Dr. Estock’s Opinion Regarding
Daniels’s Residual Functional Capacity.
Dr. Daniel C. Clark, Ph.D., performed a consultative examination on September 19,
2011 (862-67). On September 10, 2012, at a time when Daniels reported that he had been
sober for one year, Dr. Clark performed another consultative examination and evaluation
(including administering the WAIS-IV IQ test) and completed a medical source statement
of mental ability to do work-related activities. The ALJ adopted Dr. Clark’s September 2012
assessment as the claimant’s mental residual functional capacity. (R. 34).
On September 30, 2011, and October 5, 2011, Dr. Robert Estock, M.D., completed
a mental residual functional capacity assessment and psychological review technique based
on the medical records available at that time, including Dr. Clark’s September 2011
consultative evaluation. (R. 868-884). Although the ALJ did not adopt Dr. Estock’s 2011
assessments, the ALJ noted that his “findings agree substantially with those of the State
Agency medical consultant [Dr. Estock] who also determined that the claimant was not
disabled in the absence of substance abuse.” (R. 37).
Daniels argues that the ALJ erred as a matter of law by failing to specifically adopt
two limitations in Dr. Estock’s mental residual functional capacity assessment: a limitation
that Daniels “would be expected to miss 1-2 days of work per month due to symptoms of
depression,” and a limitation that Daniels “would work best with supportive
nonconfrontational supervision.” (R. 870). The ALJ did not adopt Dr. Estock’s residual
functional capacity assessment. The ALJ was not obligated to adopt or defer to Dr. Estock’s
assessment because the residual functional capacity assessment is a legal determination that
is reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). As explained in
Part IV.B. of this memorandum opinion, the ALJ’s detailed opinion confirms that the ALJ
did independently consider all the evidence and make a determination as to Daniels’s residual
functional capacity.6 Thus, the ALJ did not commit any legal error by not adopting the
findings in Dr. Estock’s mental residual functional capacity assessment.
For the reasons as stated, the court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner
should be affirmed. See Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551, 1551-52 (11th Cir. 1986)
(“Because the factual findings made by the [ALJ] . . . are supported by substantial evidence
in the record and because these findings do not entitle [the claimant] to disability benefits
under the appropriate legal standard, we affirm.”).
The Court will enter a separate final judgment.
Done this 5th day of May, 2015.
/s/Charles S. Coody
CHARLES S. COODY
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
The court notes that the ALJ's opinion does incorporate moderate limitations in his ability to interact
with others, including supervisors.
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