Williams v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Wallace Capel, Jr on 4/10/14. (scn, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
SARAH BRIGETTE WILLIAMS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO.: 3:13cv338-WC
Plaintiff, Sarah Brigette Williams, applied for disability insurance benefits. 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 the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled at any time
through the date of the decision. Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council,
and the Appeals Counsel 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 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and
Pursuant to the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103296, 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.
entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.’s
Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 18); Def.’s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 17). Based on the
court’s review of the record and the briefs of the parties, the court AFFIRMS the decision
of the Commissioner.
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 (2011).
(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
question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative
A “physical or mental impairment” is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of
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.
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.
The grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary
or 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
statutorily-required 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 claims.
Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).
Plaintiff was forty-two years old at the date of the decision and has a high school
education. Tr. 26. Following the administrative hearing, and employing the five-step
process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
July 1, 2007, the alleged onset date.” (Step 1) Tr. 14. At Step 2, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments:
disorder, chest pain with anxiety, major depressive disorder, recurrent moderate without
psychotic features, low average-to-average intellectual functioning.” Id. The ALJ then
found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.” (Step 3) Id.
Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with additional
limitations. Tr. 19. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff “is able to perform past
relevant work” as a cashier and sewing machine operator. (Step 4) Tr. 26. Continuing on
to Step 5, the ALJ found that, “[c]onsidering the claimant’s age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity,” and after consulting with the VE, “there are
jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can
perform.” Tr. 26. The ALJ identified the following occupations as examples: “cashier,”
“storage facility rental clerk,” and “hotel housekeeper.” Tr. 27. Accordingly, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from July 1, 2007, through the date of this decision.” Id.
Plaintiff’s only claim on appeal is that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of
Dr. Dan M. Guinn and Mental Health Counselor, Eve Stalker. Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 10) at 7.
Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker’s opinions essentially indicate that many of Plaintiff’s daily
living functions and social functions are extremely impaired. Tr. 23. Plaintiff argues that
the ALJ incorrectly held that Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker’s opinions were “not supported
by the objective medical evidence,” were “inconsistent with other substantial medical
evidence of record,” and were “unsupported by their own treatment records.” Id.
Normally, an ALJ must give the opinion of a treating physician “substantial or
considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.” See Phillips, 357
F.3d at 1240. “‘[G]ood cause’ exists when the: (1) treating physician’s opinion was not
bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating
physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical
records.” Id. at 1240-41. Further, “[t]he ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for
giving less weight to the opinion of a treating physician, and the failure to do so is
reversible error.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997); see also
MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (holding the ALJ “must
specify what weight is given to a treating physician’s opinion and any reason for giving it
Here, the ALJ articulated “good cause” for the rejection of the opinions of Dr.
Guinn and Ms. Stalker—that the opinions were not supported by the objective medical
evidence, were inconsistent with the other substantial medical evidence of record, and
were unsupported by their own treatment records. Tr. 23. Indeed, the decision explicitly
Dr. Guinn’s and the Mental Health Counselor, Eve Stalker’s opinions . . .
are given little weight because of a number of reasons: They are not
supported by the objective medical evidence; they are inconsistent with
other substantial medical evidence of record and other medical opinions,
including Drs. McKeown, Estock and Thorton, [which] are more consistent
with the record. They are unsupported by their own treatment records,
much of which are simply [Plaintiff]’s financially self-serving subjective
claims . . . . Their assessments [ ] are totally against the weight of the
Id. This rejection sufficiently articulates good cause.
To the extent that Plaintiff challenges that substantial evidence did not support this
determination by the ALJ, the court does not agree. Plaintiff fails to point the court to
any objective medical evidence in support of her argument, and instead relies on her
subjective complaints to Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker. In addition, the court finds that
substantial evidence did support the ALJ’s finding of inconsistencies between Dr. Guinn
and Ms. Stalker’s opinions and the other medical opinions and the evidence of record.
Plaintiff concedes that the opinions of Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker were “inconsistent with
the state agencies physician’s opinions and the opinions of the medical expert testimony
provided at the hearing.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 10) at 7. Although Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker
opined that Plaintiff’s functions of daily living were extremely impaired, the ALJ pointed
to significant evidence that Plaintiff “lives alone,” “does all household chores and
grocery shopping,” “has no problem with personal care,” “cleans and does laundry,”
walks or drives to visit with friends, goes to church, is capable of going out
unaccompanied, can handle a savings account and use a check book, reads, writes, and
does puzzles. Tr. 15-20. Because Dr. Guinn opined that Plaintiff would be “extremely
limited” in her ability to do many of the tasks that Plaintiff herself indicated she currently
does on a daily basis, substantial evidence supported the ALJ giving little weight to his
opinion. Tr. 15-20, 388-90. Indeed, the ALJ stated that “as Dr. McKeown testified, if
th[e] assessments [of Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker] were accurate, [Plaintiff] would have
long ago required institutionalization!” Tr. 23. As the ALJ stated, Dr. Guinn and Ms.
Stalker’s opinions were based on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and not founded in the
objective medical record of evidence.
The court has reviewed the opinions of Dr. Guinn and Ms. Stalker and agrees with
the ALJ’s determination to accord them little weight.
The opinions appear to be
unsupported by the other evidence or record and inconsistent with the other medical
opinions. Accordingly, the court finds no error.
The court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes that,
for the reasons given above, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
separate judgment will issue.
Done this 10th day of April, 2014.
/s/ Wallace Capel, Jr.
WALLACE CAPEL, JR.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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