Smith v. Colvin (CONSENT)
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: The court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes that, for the reasons stated above, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A final judgment will be entered separately. Signed by Honorable Judge Gray M. Borden on 10/23/2017. (kh, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ANITA TOMLINSON SMITH
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO.: 2:16-cv-751-GMB
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Anita Tomlinson Smith filed this action on March 9, 2016, seeking judicial
review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the
Social Security Act. Doc. 1. Smith applied for disability benefits with an alleged onset
date of December 31, 2009. Her application was denied at the initial administrative level.
Smith then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
on February 26, 2015. Following that hearing, the ALJ denied Smith’s claims. The
Appeals Council rejected a subsequent request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”).1
With briefing complete, this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). The parties have consented to the entry of a final judgment by the undersigned
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.
United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 73 of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure, and Rule 73.1 of the Local Rules for the United States District
Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Docs. 7 & 8. Based upon a review of the
evidentiary record, the parties’ briefs, and the relevant legal authority, the court finds that
the Commissioner’s decision is due to be AFFIRMED.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court reviews a social security case to determine whether the Commissioner’s
decision “is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards.”
Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The court “may not decide the
facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner,”
but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner’s decision if it is supported by substantial
evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks
omitted). Indeed, the court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision “if it is supported by
substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied.” Kelly v. Apfel, 185 F.3d
1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir.
“Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla—i.e., the evidence must do more than
merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence
as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Jones ex rel.
T.J.J. v. Astrue, 2011 WL 1706465, at *1 (M.D. Ala. May 5, 2011) (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d
at 1440). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of
the decision reached. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). “If the
Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm,
even if the court would have reached a contrary result as a finder of fact, and even if the
court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision.” Jones,
2011 WL 1706465, at *2 (citing Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir.
1991)). The court will reverse the Commissioner’s decision on plenary review if the
decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the court with sufficient
reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991); Jones, 2011 WL 1706465, at *2 (citing
Keeton v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There
is no presumption that the Commissioner’s conclusions of law are valid. Id.
II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the “inability 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); 42
U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from
anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
Smith bears the burden of proving that she is disabled, and she is responsible for producing
evidence to support her claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir.
Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step
analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in
(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?
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “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 disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)−(f)). “Once
the finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden of proof shifts to
the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553,
1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 1516 (11th Cir. 1985)).
Smith was 52 years old on the alleged disability onset date. She has a tenth-grade
education and prior work experience as a security officer, housekeeping cleaner, courier,
Smith filed for disability benefits based on a back injury, leg and hip pain, thyroid
problems, and depression. The ALJ held an administrative hearing on February 26, 2015.
Following that hearing, the ALJ determined that Smith suffered from the severe
impairments of degenerative disc disease and depression,2 but that neither those
impairments nor combination of those impairments met or medically equaled the severity
of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). The ALJ further determined that, based upon
the entire record, Smith had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) with the following limitations: she can
occasionally lift 50 pounds; frequently lift 25 pounds; sit for six hours in an eight-hour
work day; stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour work day; push and pull 50 pounds
occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks
involving simple work-related decisions; and occasionally interact with coworkers,
supervisors, and the public.
Based upon these findings, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Smith was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, and he denied her claims.
The sole issue Smith presents for review is whether the ALJ erred in rejecting the
opinion of her treating physician, Dr. John Franklin Maddox, without providing adequate
reasons for rejecting his opinion and with no contradicting evidence on file to support the
ALJ’s RFC determination.3 Doc. 12. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ made proper
The ALJ also found that Smith suffered from the non-severe impairments of hypothyroidism and chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease.
These are the “issues presented” by Smith in her brief. See Doc. 12 at 3. Any other issue not raised before
the court is deemed waived. See Dial v. Berryhill, 2017 WL 459859, at *3 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 2, 2017) (citing
Simpson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 423 F. App’x 882, 885 (11th Cir. 2011) (concluding in a social security
case that issues not raised before the district court are waived)).
determinations supported by substantial evidence on the record. Doc. 13. After careful
consideration of the parties’ arguments, the record evidence, and the relevant legal
authority, the court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and the proper legal standards were applied. Therefore, the Commissioner’s
decision is due to be affirmed, as explained below.
Smith contends that the ALJ committed reversible error when he assigned the
opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Maddox, “little weight” and provided inadequate
reasons for discounting this opinion. In the Eleventh Circuit, an “ALJ must give the
opinion of a treating physician substantial or considerable weight unless good cause is
shown to not give it substantial weight.” Brito v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 687 F. App’x
801, 803 (11th Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Good cause to not give an
opinion substantial weight exists where: ‘(1) [the] treating physician’s opinion was not
bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the]
treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with [his or her] own medical
records.’” Id. (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240–41 (11th Cir. 2004)).
“The ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for disregarding a treating physician’s
opinion.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “When the ALJ’s articulated reasons for
assigning limited weight to a treating physician’s opinion are supported by substantial
evidence, there is no reversible error.” Id. (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212
(11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)).
With respect to Dr. Maddox’s opinion, the ALJ opined:
A physical capacities evaluation was completed by Dr. J.F. Maddox, M.D.
in January 2015. Dr. Maddox opined that the claimant can lift and/or carry
five pounds occasionally and one pound frequently on a normal work day,
sit for six hours and stand or walk for four hours in an eight hour work day,
and does not require an assistive device. Regarding postural activities, Dr.
Maddox opined that the claimant can frequently grab, twist, handle, perform
fine manipulation, operate motor vehicles, and be exposed to environmental
hazards. He further opined that the claimant can occasionally push and pull,
climb stairs or ladders, balance, and reach, and can rarely bend, stoop, and
work with or around hazardous machinery. Finally, Dr. Maddox stated that
the claimant is likely to be absent one day per month from work as a result
of her impairments. He noted that pain is present to such an extent as to be
distracting to adequate performance of daily activities of work, that physical
activity will greatly increase the claimant’s pain to such a degree as to cause
distraction or total abandonment from tasks, and that some limitations upon
the claimant’s ability to perform her work may be present, but not to such a
degree as to create serious problems in most instances. The undersigned
assigns this opinion little weight, as the objective medical evidence of record
does not support these limitations. Treatment records from January 2015,
the same time that the claimant was evaluated, shown normal findings, noting
that the claimant’s gait and station demonstrate standing and walking are
stable and functional, with no bone, joint, tendon, or muscle abnormalities,
joints move freely and without pain, with normal muscle strength and tone.
Additionally, the undersigned finds that Dr. Maddox’s opinion is internally
inconsistent. Dr. Maddox’s January 2015 treatment note states “no disability
Doc. 16-2 at 18 (internal citations omitted). Having reviewed the record, and assuming
that Dr. Maddox qualifies as a treating physician, the court finds that the ALJ adequately
articulated good cause not to give Dr. Maddox’s opinion substantial or considerable
As the Eleventh Circuit has held, good cause not to give substantial weight to a
treating physician’s opinion exists when the opinion is not bolstered by the evidence or is
inconsistent with the treating physician’s own medical records. Here, the ALJ expressly
noted that he was assigning Dr. Maddox’s opinion little weight because (1) the limitations
assigned therein were not supported by the objective medical evidence of record and (2)
Dr. Maddox’s opinion was inconsistent with his other treatment note during the same
timeframe. Both of those reasons are supported by substantial evidence in the record. It
is unclear whether Dr. Maddox ever personally examined Smith. Indeed, the treatment
records from his office, Three Notch Medical Center, are from his nurse practitioner,
Ricky Lewis, and they reflect that during the January 2015 timeframe—the same timeframe
during which Dr. Maddox completed his physical capacities and pain evaluation for
Smith—Smith’s gait and station demonstrated that her ability to stand and walk were stable
and functional; that she had no bone, joint, or tendon abnormalities; that her joints moved
freely and without pain; and that she had normal muscle strength and tone. In fact, the only
treatment note from Lewis that Dr. Maddox countersigned in January 2015 specifically
states: “NO DISABILITY NOTED.” Dr. Maddox’s physical capacities evaluation also
provided no explanation for the degree and basis for the severe physical limitations he
placed on Smith.
What is more, this analysis assumes that Dr. Maddox even qualifies as a treating
physician—a tenuous assumption at best. “A treating source is a claimant’s own physician
. . . who provides, or has provided the claimant with medical treatment or evaluation and
who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with the claimant.” Saucier v.
Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 552 F. App’x 926, 929 (11th Cir. 2014). Under the regulations,
a claimant has an ongoing treatment relationship with an acceptable medical source when
the medical evidence establishes that the claimant sees, or has seen, the source with a
frequency consistent with accepted medical practice for the type of treatment and
evaluation required for the claimant’s medical condition. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(a)(2).
As previously noted, it is unclear from the record whether Dr. Maddox ever
personally examined Smith and, if he did examine her, whether he did so more than once.
The medical records from Three Notch Medical Center reflect that Dr. Maddox only
countersigned one treatment record from January 2015 in addition to completing the
physical capacities and pain evaluation. In short, the court is not persuaded that this type
of relationship qualifies Dr. Maddox as Smith’s treating physician such that his opinion
would be entitled to presumptive substantial or considerable weight absent a showing of
good cause to assign it lesser weight.
Still, irrespective of whether Dr. Maddox qualifies a treating, examining, or even
non-examining physician, the ALJ is free to reject any medical opinion if the evidence
supports a contrary finding. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985). Here,
the ALJ applied the proper legal standards for evaluating medical opinions and assigned
Dr. Maddox’s opinion little weight. For the reasons stated above, the court finds this
decision by the ALJ is supported by substantial evidence and due to be affirmed.4
Finally, it is unclear whether Smith is challenging the ALJ’s RFC determination.
To the extent Smith is making such a challenge, the court finds that the ALJ applied the
The Commissioner also argues that the ALJ was free to reject Dr. Maddox’s opinion because it was
provided after Smith’s date last insured—September 30, 2013. Doc. 13 at 5. While the Eleventh Circuit
has permitted an ALJ to reject a treating physician’s opinion when a claimant did not begin seeing the
physician until after her date last insured, see Whitton v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 643 F. App’x 842,
845-46 (11th Cir. 2016), the court declines to address this issue because it finds that the ALJ articulated
good cause for assigning Dr. Maddox’s opinion little weight.
proper legal standards and his RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence in
the record. Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision on this issue is due to be affirmed as well.
The court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes that,
for the reasons stated above, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A final
judgment will be entered separately.
DONE this 23rd day of October, 2017.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?