Thomas v. Colvin (CONSENT)
MEMORANDUM OPINION: The court has carefully and independently review the record and concludes that, for the reasons given as further set out in the opinion, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A separate judgment will issue. Signed by Honorable Judge Wallace Capel, Jr. on 10/6/2015. (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.: 3:14cv894-WC
Danillie Thomas (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability insurance benefits
under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq, on
September 4, 2012.
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 finding Plaintiff not disabled
from the alleged onset date of March 29, 2011, through the date of the decision. Plaintiff
appealed to the Appeals Council, which rejected her request for review of the ALJ’s
The ALJ’s decision consequently became the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d
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.
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 entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate
Judge. Pl.’s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 10); Def.’s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 11).
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 benefits when the person is
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?
A “physical or mental impairment” is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities that are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
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
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).3
The burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step Four. 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 One
through Step Four. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then
show there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy the claimant can
To perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine the claimant’s
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). Id. at 1238-39. The RFC is what the claimant is
still able to do despite the claimant’s impairments and is based on all relevant medical
and other evidence. Id. It may 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
McDaniel is a supplemental security income (SSI) case. The same sequence applies to disability
insurance benefits. Supplemental security income cases arising under Title XVI of the Social Security
Act are appropriately cited as authority in Title II cases. See, e.g., Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 412
(5th Cir. 1981); Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F. App’x 874, 876 n.* (11th Cir. 2012) (“The
definition of disability and the test used to determine whether a person has a disability is the same for
claims seeking disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income.”).
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 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
See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2.
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-eight years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ, and
had completed some college coursework while serving in the military. Tr. 51. Following
the administrative hearing, and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found at Step
One that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 29, 2011,
the alleged onset date[.]” Tr. 27. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from
the following severe impairments: “minimal osteoarthritis of the hips, lumbar
degenerative disc disease and spondylosis, carpal tunnel syndrome of the right wrist,
headaches, depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[.]” Tr. 27.5
At Step Three, the ALJ 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[.]” Tr. 30. Next, the ALJ articulated Plaintiff’s RFC as follows:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except she cannot do jobs that require her
to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. She can frequently reach overhead
with her right upper extremity. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps
or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She is capable of
performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks, and can concentrate and persist
for two-hour segments. Work must be limited to occasional changes in the
The ALJ also found that Plaintiff suffers from the non-severe impairments of “epicondylitis of
the right elbow, reflux disease, hypertension, and obesity.” Tr. 27.
work setting, and occasional interaction with the public and co-workers.
She is unable to meet fast-paced, high production demands.
Tr. 32. Having consulted with a VE at the hearing, the ALJ concluded at Step Four that
Plaintiff is “unable to perform any past relevant work[.]” Tr. 33. Finally, at Step Five,
and based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that “[c]onsidering the
claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are
jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can
perform.” Tr. 34. The ALJ identified several representative occupations, including
“marker,” “garment sorter,” and “warehouse checker.” Id.
Accordingly, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from March 29, 2011,
through the date of this decision[.]” Tr. 34.
Plaintiff presents three issues for the court to consider in its review of the
She argues that the “ALJ’s residual functional capacity
finding was not based on the medical record,” that the ALJ “erred in his evaluation of
Treating Psychotherapist . . . opinion,” and that the ALJ “erred in his credibility finding.”
Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 6-14.
The ALJ’s RFC Finding.
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ “did not basis [sic] his exertional . . . or his
nonexertional RFC findings . . . on the medical record.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 6. She
asserts that the ALJ’s RFC is not supported by a “sufficient summary of the medical
evidence” and is, instead, “a conclusory, categorical RFC assessment or a broad
Id. at 6-7 (internal quotation and citation omitted).
As to the ALJ’s
exertional RFC findings, Plaintiff concedes that, in support of his finding, the ALJ cites
“a string of discrete negative examination findings and treatment note citations[,]” but
that the “ALJ’s discrete citations to the record are not representative of the record as a
whole.” Id. at 7. She maintains that because other evidence in the record conflicts with
the evidence relied upon by the ALJ, the ALJ’s exertional RFC finding “was not based on
evidence presented[,] and as such [is] not supported by substantial evidence.” Id. at 9.
Prior to rendering his RFC findings, the ALJ carefully surveyed the medical
evidence in the record, including evidence dating around and succeeding Plaintiff’s
alleged disability onset date. For example, the ALJ noted the general success in pain
relief and management achieved by the implantation of a spinal cord stimulator in late
The ALJ discussed the February, 2011, observation of Plaintiff’s treating
physician, Dr. Dawson, that “the stimulator had reduced the claimant’s leg and back pain
so much she was able to begin a walking program for exercise and weight loss.” Tr. 28.
See also Tr. 512 (“Her symptoms are stable since last visit. The stimulator is reduce her
pain back and leg pains. . . . She walks for exercises.”). The ALJ further noted Dr.
Dawson’s follow-up observation, in April of 2011, that the stimulator is “doing good” in
reducing Plaintiff’s pain to “mild in severity,” and that Plaintiff was still walking for
exercise and had joined a gym. Tr. 28; Tr. 514. The record continues to bear out the
ALJ’s observation about the success of the spinal cord stimulator. See Tr. 516 (July 1,
2011, treatment note observing “stimulator continues to reduce her lumbar and leg
pains,” leaving only “mild in severity” lumbar pain); 518 (August 29, 2011, treatment
note indicating “stimulator continues to reduce her lumbar pain and leg pains,” leaving
her ongoing lumbar pain which is “mild in severity”); 520 (October 26, 2011, treatment
note indicating that “stimulator continues to reduce her lumbar pain and leg pains,” and
that, since it was reprogrammed after her last visit, it has “helped a lot”); and 524 (March
28, 2012, treatment note indicating Plaintiff’s “symptoms are improved since last visit,”
that she still suffers lumbar pain which is “mild in severity,” and that Plaintiff “has
adequate relief of her neuropathic pain from her DCS”).
The ALJ also canvassed other evidence in the record, including the consultative
examination performed by Dr. Johnston. Tr. 29. In pertinent part, the ALJ noted that
“Dr. Johnston found moderately limited range of motion in the spine, with reported pain
and stiffness,” but that her “[s]trength was normal in all extremities,” and “[s]traight leg
raise test was normal, as were reflexes, sensation, and fine or gross manipulation.” Tr.
Ultimately, the ALJ noted, “[n]o functional limitations or restrictions were
recommended by Dr. Johnston.” Id.; see Tr. 767-68.
In addition to evidence from Plaintiff’s treating physician and the consultative
examiner, the ALJ noted Plaintiff’s testimony that she can bathe without assistance,
performs ordinary housework, regularly climbs the stairs in her home, travels out-of-town
to visit her son in college, and goes out to movies, restaurants, and church. Tr. 30.
Summarizing all of this evidence, in formulating Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ found as
Overall, the trend of the evidence shows improvement in low back pain,
particularly after the SCS implementation. In February 2013, the claimant
reported about 60 to 70 percent pain relief with medications, and she was
reportedly getting “. . . adequate pain relief . . .” from use of the stimulator.
Examination by Dr. Johnston in July 2013 showed normal leg strength,
normal reflexes, negative straight leg raise test, and no sensory or motor
deficits. Dr. Dawson noted subjective improvement in symptoms in August
2013. . . . She testified she can walk the stairs in her home, drive to
errands and shopping, and go out to movies and restaurants.
Tr. 33 (citations omitted).
Plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ, arguing that, merely because her treating
physician characterized her pain relief as “adequate,” it does not follow that she “was
pain free or doing well enough on a daily basis to obtain, perform or sustain competitive
work activity.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 8. Plaintiff points to Dr. Dawson’s treatment notes
reflecting her reports that she has “good and bad days,” that she continued to suffer
lumbar pain even after insertion of the spinal cord stimulator, and that, while she
sometimes reported 60-70% pain relief to Dr. Dawson, other times she reported only 3040% pain relief. She maintains that, on the whole, “Dr. Dawson’s records show that
examination findings were inconsistent with an ability to perform light-exertional work
competitively” because “[t]hroughout 2012 and 2013 examinations, Dr. Dawson
regularly noted decreased and painful lumbar spine range of motion, paraspinous
musculature was tender to palpation, positive bilateral straight leg raises, and an antalgic
In essence, Plaintiff appears to be arguing that, while the ALJ found and cited to
some evidence lending support to his RFC findings, more evidence in the record
preponderates against the ALJ’s findings. Of course, such an argument does not reflect a
proper application of the substantial evidence standard. The ALJ’s decision can enjoy the
support of substantial evidence even if more evidence in the record would support a more
restricted RFC finding. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir.
2004) (“If the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, this Court
must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.”). Nor, to the extent Plaintiff is
indeed arguing such, is it material to the substantial evidence inquiry that, despite Dr.
Dawson’s treatment notes indicating some success in limiting and treating Plaintiff’s
pain, Dr. Dawson did not conclude that she was “pain free.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 7.
See, e.g., Brown v. Bowen, 801 F.2d 361, 362-63 (10th Cir. 1986) (remarking that
“disability requires more than mere inability to work without pain”).
Plaintiff points to no opinion evidence in the record indicating that she is more
restricted in her exertional abilities than that found by the ALJ. Instead, like the ALJ, she
isolates discrete portions of the record which, she argues, support her position that she is
disabled and argues that, in this instance, more of the record supports her argument than
it does the ALJ’s findings. And, indeed, there is evidence supporting her position.
However, given the numerous instances in the record documenting the generally
successful treatment and abatement of Plaintiff’s pain (see, e.g., Tr. 514, 516, 520, 524,
526, 528, 530, 533, 534), as well as the largely unremarkable observations of the
consultative examiner (Tr. 767-68), and the ALJ’s discussion of Plaintiff’s daily living
activities and capacities, the court does not agree that the evidence on the whole is
“inconsistent with an ability to perform light-exertional work competitively,” Pl.’s Br.
(Doc. 13) at 8, and therefore cannot find that the ALJ’s RFC finding as to Plaintiff’s
exertional abilities is not supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ’s RFC findings respecting Plaintiff’s nonexertional limitations are not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff claims the ALJ
did not sufficiently explain the evidentiary basis for his findings with respect to
Plaintiff’s non-exertional limitations, and that the ALJ “mischaracterized the record
arguing that Ms. Thomas’ PTSD and Depression were not severe enough to result in
more significant limitations.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 9.
The ALJ reviewed evidence in the record concerning Plaintiff’s mental health.
The ALJ noted that Plaintiff has received treatment for “alleged depressive disorder and
He noted that a PHQ-2 test in July 2013 showed “‘moderate’
depression,” that a September 2013 assessment indicated that with her medication
Plaintiff finds some relief from her symptoms on good days, but that she also experiences
bad days and low energy days. Tr. 29. The ALJ also noted a November 2013 PHQ-2
screening which was negative for depression. Tr. 29 (citing Tr. 1049). Based upon this
evidence, and Plaintiff’s testimony at the hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s depression
and PTSD to be severe impairments. Tr. 27. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
has moderate difficulties in social functioning due to her PTSD and depression, and that
she has moderate difficulties with regard to her concentration, persistence, and pace due
to “symptoms of depression that include difficulty maintaining concentration.” Tr. 31.
As a result of these impairments, the ALJ found as follows: “She is capable of
performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks, and can concentrate and persist for two-hour
Work must be limited to occasional changes in the work setting, and
occasional interaction with the public and co-workers. She is unable to meet fast-paced,
high production demands.” Tr. 32. In support, the ALJ referred to records showing that
Plaintiff “has responded well to individual and group therapy.” Tr. 33. The ALJ also
cited, again, the negative depression screening in November, 2013, as well as the fact that
Plaintiff has not received any in-patient psychiatric treatment. Tr. 33.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence,
and, furthermore, that the ALJ mischaracterized the record in rendering his RFC findings.
In support, she contends “the ALJ ignored the positive clinical findings, as record[ed] by
the VA’s treating psychological sources. Treating psychiatrists’ findings indicated Ms.
Thomas’ affect and mood were ‘up and down’ and depressed; insight and judgment12
‘fair’; and thoughts ‘intrusive.’ Treating psychologist (Michael D. Marti, PsyD) usually
noted Ms. Thomas’ flat affect and mood.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 9 (citations omitted).
It cannot be fairly argued that the ALJ “ignored positive clinical findings” or the
observations of Dr. Marti. As set forth above, the ALJ plainly recognized both the
positive diagnoses of depression and PTSD in the record and, specifically, Dr. Marti’s
note indicating that Plaintiff’s PHQ-9 score in July of 2013 was in the moderate
depression range. See Tr. 29 (citing Tr. 810). Plaintiff only points to other instances in
the record reflecting findings—such as her “up and down” mood and flat affect—that
were already recognized by the ALJ. Apart from the opinion of her counselor, the ALJ’s
treatment of which will be separately discussed below, Plaintiff points to no evidence in
the record, whether opinion or otherwise, which indicates that her depression and PTSD
cause functional limitations greater than those articulated by the ALJ. Accordingly, the
court does not find that the ALJ’s non-exertional RFC findings are not supported by
substantial evidence in the record.
The ALJ’s treatment of Plaintiff’s Treating Psychotherapist’s Opinion.
Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ failed to mention or appropriately apply the
factors relevant to the Commissioner’s consideration of her treating psychotherapist, a
non-medical source. Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 11 (citing SSR 06-03p). Plaintiff testified that
she began seeing her psychotherapist, Quinn Wulff, every thirty days starting in 2009.
Tr. 71. In January of 2013, Ms. Wulff wrote a letter outlining her history of counseling
Plaintiff, discussing Plaintiff’s reporting about her symptoms and Ms. Wulff’s diagnoses
of Plaintiff’s mental impairments, and opining about Plaintiff’s “occupational and social
impairments[.]” Tr. 827. In particular, Ms. Wulff stated that, “[d]ue to her declining
health and mental health symptoms, it is highly unlikely that Ms. Thomas will be able to
continue sustaining any form of employment, as her condition will probably last the
remainder of her life. As these symptoms and health problems increase, it is most likely
that Ms. Thomas will continue to have problems on any job that will directly interfere
with her performance.”
Later, in September of 2013, Ms. Wulff, who
apparently obtained a Doctorate in the interim, completed a “Medical Source Statement
(Mental)” in which she opined that Plaintiff has extreme or marked impairments in
several areas of mental functioning in an occupational setting and that Plaintiff would be
expected to miss more than four days of work per month due to her impairments. Tr.
The ALJ rejected Ms. Wulff’s opinion, giving it no weight “because [s]he is not an
Furthermore, [her] opinions are not based on [her] independent
judgment, but upon the claimant’s input.” Tr. 34.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have afforded Ms. Wulff’s opinion
significant weight considering the lengthy counseling relationship between Ms. Wulff
and Plaintiff. Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 11. Plaintiff appears to argue that, as when an ALJ
rejects the opinion of an acceptable medical treating source, the ALJ should have
articulated “good cause” for his rejection of Ms. Wulff’s opinion rather than substituting
“his own ‘medical opinion’ for that of a Treating Psychological Source Opinion.” Id. at
To the extent Plaintiff is indeed arguing that the ALJ should have articulated
“good cause” for his rejection of Ms. Wulff’s opinion, Plaintiff is incorrect. A mental
health counselor such as Mrs. Wulff is not an acceptable medical source, see 20 C.F.R. §
404.1513(a)(1)-(5), and, therefore, cannot suffice as a treating physician whose opinion is
entitled to great weight in the absence of good cause. Instead, Ms. Wulff’s opinion is that
of an “other” source, and cannot, alone, establish the existence of disability. See SSR 0603p (“only ‘acceptable medical sources’ can give us medical opinions”). Such evidence
may be used, however, “to show the severity” of Plaintiff’s medically determinable
impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(d). In this case, the ALJ correctly observed that Ms.
Wulff’s opinion appears conclusory and is based, entirely, upon Plaintiff’s subjective
There are no treatment notes in the record reflecting Ms. Wulff’s
independent observations and conclusions about Plaintiff’s mental health and
functioning. Rather, apart from Ms. Wulff’s letter and the “Medical Source Statement
(Mental)” she completed, the only records from Landmark Counseling, the entity through
which Plaintiff was seeing Ms. Wulff, consist of a series of one-page forms in which
Plaintiff is asked to describe her mood, attitude, and behavior since her last session,
identify which emotions she has experienced since her last session, describe significant
events since her last session, and describe any “improvements” since her last session. See
Tr. 1014-1042. A review of these records indicates that Plaintiff almost always reported
that she was in a “good” mood since her last session and that she regularly experienced a
host of positive emotions between her sessions. Id. In other words, the only available
records from Landmark Counseling depict someone in a mostly “good” mood who
experiences the ordinary fluctuations of positive and negative emotions which are
attendant to everyday life for most people. And, as the ALJ recognized, to the extent
these records could be argued as somehow supportive of Ms. Wulff’s opinion, they are
based entirely on Plaintiff’s subjective reporting, not the independent observation of Ms.
Wulff. See Tr. 74 (ALJ: “okay, you helped her fill it out or she asked you questions
about that?” A: “She asked me questions sir.”).
The ALJ’s rejection of Ms. Wulff’s opinion is not contrary to SSR 06-03p. First,
SSR 06-03p describes one of the factors relevant to the analysis of non-acceptable
medical source opinions as “[t]he degree to which the source presents relevant evidence
to support an opinion.” Here, Ms. Wulff provides no treatment note or other evidence in
support of her opinion. As such, the ALJ’s rejection of Ms. Wulff’s opinion because, in
part, it is based only upon the “claimant’s input” rather than Ms. Wulff’s “independent
judgment” is consistent with at least one of the factors ALJ’s are advised to consider
when reviewing non-accepted medical source opinions. More importantly, however,
SSR 06-03p simply directs that the ALJ “generally should explain the weight given to
opinions from . . . ‘other sources,’ or otherwise ensure that the discussion of the evidence
in the determination or decision allows a claimant or subsequent reviewer to follow the
Here, the ALJ’s reasoning is easily followed: the ALJ
rejected Ms. Wulff’s opinion because the source did not present “relevant evidence” to
support her opinion and instead relied on the self-reporting of a claimant whom the ALJ
found to be less than fully credible, and the record otherwise lacked evidence supporting
the numerous marked and severe limitations Ms. Wulff described. Tr. 33. Upon the
court’s review, the court finds nothing in the record from Landmark Counseling, or in the
larger record as a whole, consistent with the numerous marked or extreme limitations in
mental functioning which Ms. Wulff, a non-acceptable medical source, attributed to
Plaintiff. As such, the ALJ’s decision to discredit Ms. Wulff’s opinion is supported by
substantial evidence in the record.
The ALJ’s credibility finding.
Plaintiff’s final claim is that the “specific reasons” articulated by the ALJ for
finding Plaintiff less than fully credible “did not accurately reflect the record, and
therefore did not support his credibility finding.”
Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 13.
maintains that the ALJ “never offered a meaningful credibility analysis” because the ALJ
erroneously characterized the objective medical record as not supportive of Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints, “ignored positive objective clinical and radiological findings,” and
failed to properly assess Plaintiff’s “treatment history” in “assessing her credibility.” Id.
Plaintiff testified that she can bathe and dress herself, but that she has to sit down
to put on her shoes and socks because her balance is lacking. Tr. 57-58. She does
housework like laundry and sweeping and loading and unloading the dishwasher. Tr. 5960. She is able to climb the stairs in her home. Tr. 60. She leaves her home to visit her
son at college, visit friends in the neighborhood, go to Fort Benning, go out to eat at
restaurants, go to movies, go shopping, and walk in her neighborhood for exercise. Tr.
59-63. She estimated she could lift and carry “maybe 20 pounds.” Tr. 70. Plaintiff
testified she believes she is disabled because she has “problems sitting for a length of
time, standing, bending, squatting, reaching over [her] head, drowsiness, falling asleep.”
Tr. 73. She also testified that her medications affect her, making her feel cloudy and
nauseous. Tr. 73. She spends approximately five out of eight waking hours resting or
napping around the house. Tr. 75. She cannot lift weights above her head, but she can
comfortably lift and walk back and forth with a five pound bag of sugar. Tr. 76. She has
nightmares about five out of seven nights. Tr. 76-77. Her mind wanders after about
twenty-five minutes. Tr. 77. She cannot handle pressure situations. Tr. 78. On bad days
she wakes to leg and back pains, she struggles to walk without a limp, and she will spend
most of her time in bed. Tr. 78. This happens about four days a week. Tr. 79. Her back
and hip pain is an eight on a one-to-ten scale where one equals a mosquito bite and ten
equals pain requiring hospitalization. Tr. 79. On a bad day, her elbow pain will be a
seven, and if she is experiencing a headache, which occurs approximately twice a month,
it will be a nine. Tr. 79-80.
The ALJ summarized Plaintiff’s testimony, Tr. 30, but ultimately found that, while
“the claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to
cause the alleged symptoms[,] . . . the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity,
persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible, because they
are not supported by objective medical evidence.” Tr. 33. In support, the ALJ described
the objective evidence previously discussed in this opinion—including, particularly, Dr.
Dawson’s records showing that Plaintiff’s spinal cord stimulator was generally successful
in ameliorating Plaintiff’s pain—in conjunction with Plaintiff’s claim that the ALJ’s RFC
is not supported by substantial evidence, as well as Plaintiff’s testimony about her daily
activities and abilities. Tr. 33. Ultimately, the ALJ determined that this evidence at least
“allows a reasonable inference that the claimant’s symptoms are not as severe as
previously alleged.” Tr. 33.
This court must uphold the ALJ’s credibility determination if it is supported by
substantial evidence. See Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1246 (11th Cir. 2002) (“If
the ALJ discredits subjective testimony, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons
for doing so.”). As Plaintiff observes, “the ALJ paired his credibility and RFC
evaluations.” Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 13. Thus, Plaintiff’s claim that the ALJ failed to
properly consider the entire record while evaluating her credibility is essentially identical
to her claim that the ALJ’s RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. See
Pl.’s Br. (Doc. 13) at 13 (“As detailed in arguments “I and II” above, Ms. Thomas’
statements regarding her physical and psychological symptoms are supported by [the
records of Dr. Dawson, Dr. Johnston, and Ms. Wulff].”). However, for the reasons stated
above with respect to Plaintiff’s claim about the ALJ’s RFC determination, the
undersigned finds that, even if some objective medical evidence arguably supports some
of Plaintiff’s complaints of disabling pain, there is substantial evidence in the record
which supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff is not so functionally limited by
pain that she is disabled, and the ALJ therefore did not improperly characterize or
otherwise ignore the evidence in the record. See, supra, § V.A, pgs. 7-9, 11-12. As such,
the ALJ did not reversibly err in his credibility determination.
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 6th day of October, 2015.
/s/ Wallace Capel, Jr.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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