Caldwell v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING the Commissioner's decision; furhter ORDERING that plf's 12 MOTION for attorneys' fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 241(d) and motion for an extensionof time to file an application for attorneys fees under 42 U.S.C. 406(b) are DENIED. Signed by Honorable Judge Susan Russ Walker on 9/30/16. (djy, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO. 3:15cv186-SRW
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Misty Caldwell commenced this action on March 24, 2015, pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner
denying her claim for supplemental security income (SSI). (Doc. 1). Plaintiff alleged a
period of disability beginning on January 1, 2011, but did not specify the cause of her
disability in her SSI application. (Doc. 14-5 at 2-8). The Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) determined, inter alia, that the plaintiff was diagnosed with and treated for carpal
tunnel syndrome as well as various conditions that could reasonably be expected to cause
pain in the back and joints.1 (Doc. 14-2 at 26, 32). On August 23, 2013, the ALJ issued
The ALJ found that plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
obesity; mood disorder, not otherwise specified; moderate age appropriate arthritis; mitral
valve prolapse with mild mitral regurgitation; myocardial bridge; non-obstructive coronary
artery disease; non-obstructive renal disease; mild worsening disc degeneration, with mild
bulging and mild bilateral foraminal stenosis of the lumbar spine without focal disc
protrusion or herniation; stable degenerative cervical disease, with mild bilateral foraminal
stenosis, without disc protrusion or herniation’ and restless leg syndrome[.]
(Doc. 14-2 at 26). In addition to plaintiff’s severe impairments, the ALJ also considered several diagnoses
for multiple conditions that the plaintiff received prior to the hearing. (Id.).
an adverse decision.2 (Doc. 14-2 at 24-38). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request
for review, and the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at
2-7). This case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties
have consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
(Doc. 9, 10). For the reasons stated herein, and based upon its review of the record, the
court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is due to be affirmed. Plaintiff also moves for
an award of reasonable attorney’s fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28
U.S.C. § 241(d) and an extension of time to file an application for attorney’s fees under 42
U.S.C. § 406(b). (Doc. 12 at 11). Because the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed, these
motions will be denied.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is narrowly circumscribed. The
function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is
supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221
(11th Cir. 2002). This court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the
decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It
is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A reviewing court “may not
Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing before the ALJ. (Doc. 14-2 at 24).
decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the
[Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words,
this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner’s findings of fact de novo, even
where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.
While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial
evidence, it reviews the ALJ’s legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of
validity attaches to the ALJ’s determination of the proper legal standards to be applied.
Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the
ALJ’s application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient
reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse
the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of
disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the
Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability
to do 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 twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide
evidence about a “physical or mental impairment” that “must result from anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.
The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:
whether the claimant is currently employed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals an impairment
listed by the Commissioner;
whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to a formerly applicable C.F.R.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir.
1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The sequential
analysis goes as follows:
Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will
automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If
the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work,
the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can
perform some other job.
Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The
Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in
significant numbers. Id.
The sole question for the court is whether the Commissioner’s decision should be
reversed “because the ALJ erred in failing to accord adequate weight to the medical
opinions expressed by [the plaintiff’s] treating specialist[,]” Dr. Wail Hamo, M.D. (Doc.
12 at 4). The plaintiff does not take issue with the weight the ALJ assigned to the other
medical sources of record, including plaintiff’s other treating physicians. Thus, the court
addresses only the plaintiff’s argument regarding the ALJ’s decision to give Dr. Hamo’s
testimony “little” or “no” weight. (Doc. 14-2 at 36).
The court finds that the ALJ applied correct legal standards. The Commissioner
must specify what weight is given to a treating physician’s opinion and any reason for
giving it no weight at all. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)
(citing Broughton v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 960, 961-62 (11th Cir. 1985) and Wiggins v.
Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389-90 (11th Cir. 1982)). Failure to do so is reversible error.
Id. (citations omitted). The opinion of a treating physician “must be given substantial or
considerable weight unless good cause is shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhard, 357
F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997)) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Good cause” exists when:
the treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence,
the evidence supported a contrary finding; or
the treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with his or her
own medical records.
Id. at 1241 (citation omitted).
The ALJ must clearly articulate his or her reasons for disregarding a treating
physician’s opinion, and the failure to do so is reversible error. Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440
(citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (“We will always give good reasons
in our notice of determination or decision for the weight we give your treating source’s
opinion.”). However, when the ALJ adequately states specific reasons for doing so, and
those reasons are supported by substantial evidence, there is no error. Moore v. Barnhart,
405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).
The ALJ’s written decision meets both criteria. With respect to Dr. Hamo’s
evidence and testimony, the ALJ indicated that
Some weight is accorded to the above stated opinions of the [plaintiff’s]
treating physician Dr. Hamo, as he opined that the [plaintiff] was capable of
lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally, however, the undersigned finds
that Dr. Hamo’s limitations on the [plaintiff’s] ability to stand and walk are
inconsistent with the [plaintiff’s] extensive activities of daily living and the
treatment records. Additionally, Dr. Hamo’s opinion that the [plaintiff]
would miss more than four days of work a month due to her impairments is
not supported by the record and is given no weight.
(Doc. 14-2 at 36). The ALJ discussed Dr. Hamo’s testimony, as well as his notes and the
results of laboratory tests. (Doc. 14-2 at 33-34). The ALJ observed that Dr. Hamo’s notes
and lab results reveal that plaintiff was getting “good relief” from medication for joint pain,
with “no significant side effects.” (Id. at 33). Plaintiff’s blood work was unremarkable.
(Id.). On October 30, 2012, Dr. Hamo noted that plaintiff had “tenderness over the cervical
spine, lumbosacral spine, right wrist, and left wrist area, with negative left straight leg
raises and positive right straight leg raises.” (Id.). An MRI of plaintiff’s spine “revealed
mild worsening of L5-S1 disc degeneration with mild bulging and mild bilateral
foraminal.” (Id.). Dr. Hamo also noted that plaintiff “reported a flare up of lower back
pain and arthritic symptoms, but that the [plaintiff] exhibited no features of depression or
anxiety at that time.” (Id.).
The ALJ observed that Dr. Hamo “completed a medical source statement dated May
24, 2013” in which he
opined that the [plaintiff] could lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally,
and 10 pounds occasionally; sit for one hour at a time, stand and walk for up
to 15 minutes at a time; sit for a total of seven hours and stand and walk for
a total of 30 minutes in an eight hour work day. Dr. Hano opined that the
[plaintiff] could occasionally reach overhead and out, handle, finger, push
and pull with the bilateral upper extremities; frequently feel with the bilateral
upper extremities; and occasionally operate foot controls with bilateral lower
extremities. Dr. Hamo opined that the [plaintiff] could never tolerate
exposure to unprotected heights, extreme cold, extreme heat, or vibrations;
and occasionally tolerate exposure to moving machinery, operate a motor
vehicle, humidity and wetness, and dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary
irritants, and moderate exposure to noise. Dr. Hamo opined that the [plaintiff]
would miss more than four days a week due to her impairments.
(Doc. 14-2 at 33-34; see also Doc. 14-10 at 2-10 (Dr. Hamo’s medical source statement)).
The ALJ’s decision contains a detailed discussion of plaintiff’s medical records and
the medical source testimony of record, including Dr. Hamo’s testimony. (Doc. 14-2 at
34-35). Generally, the ALJ found that
[t]reatment notes simply fail to indicate the level of dysfunction alleged by
the [plaintiff]. A review of the medical evidence of record fails to indicate
physical findings consistent with the [plaintiff’s] allegations. The objective
medical evidence fails to establish that any of the [plaintiff’s] medical
problems are more than moderately severe, with most of her problems being
described as mild and stable. Additionally, treatment notes indicate that the
[plaintiff’s] medical problems have responded to treatment, and that the
[plaintiff’s] treatment has been sporadic for individual impairments.
(Id. at 35-36). When the ALJ made his disability determination, which includes his decision
regarding the weight to assign to Dr. Hamo’s testimony, the ALJ also considered the
plaintiff’s testimony about her daily activities and her perception of limitations caused by
her impairments. (Id. at 31).
In short, the record reflects that the ALJ articulated reasons that are sufficient to
constitute “good cause” for failing to give Dr. Hamo’s testimony “substantial or
considerable weight,” which is in accordance with the ALJ’s obligation under existing law.
See Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240. Moreover, the court has carefully scrutinized the record,
and it concludes that the ALJ’s decision with regard to Dr. Hamo’s testimony is based on
substantial evidence. (See, e.g., Doc. 14-2 at 43-85; Doc. 14-8 at 57-72; Doc. 14-10 at 210). While the plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ’s factual findings and directs the court to
evidence favoring plaintiff’s argument that she is, in fact, disabled, this court cannot
reweigh the evidence and is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to
support the Commissioner’s decision. See Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210.
Upon consideration of the parties’ briefs and the record, the Commissioner’s
decision is based on substantial evidence and is in accordance with controlling law. The
Commissioner’s decision will be AFFIRMED by a separate judgment.
In addition, it is
ORDERED that plaintiff’s motion for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees
pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 241(d) and motion for an extension
of time to file an application for attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) are DENIED.
(Doc. 12 at 11).
DONE, on this the 30th day of September, 2016.
/s/ Susan Russ Walker
Susan Russ Walker
Chief United States Magistrate Judge
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