Carroll v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: Based on the foregoing, the court cannot conclude that the Commissioners decision is supported by substantial evidence and based upon the proper legal standards. It is therefore ORDERED that the decision of the Commissio ner denying benefits is REVERSED, and this matter is REMANDED to the Administrative Law Judge for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. A final judgment will be entered separately. Signed by Honorable Judge Gray M. Borden on 2/10/2017. (dmn, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BURKE BRADFORD CARROLL,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1 Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO.: 3:15-cv-503-GMB
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On January 19, 2012, Plaintiff Burke Bradford Carroll (“Carroll”) applied for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Titles II and
XVI of the Social Security Act, respectively, alleging a disability onset date of August 25,
2011 for both claims. Carroll’s claims were denied at the initial administrative level.
Carroll then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). On August 26, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing, and on November 13, 2013 denied
Carroll’s claims. Carroll requested a review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council,
and that request was denied on June 23, 2015. As a result, the ALJ’s decision became the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) as of June 23,
Nancy A. Berryhill is the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Pursuant to Rule
25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Nancy A. Berryhill is substituted for Carolyn W. Colvin,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, as the Defendant in this lawsuit. No further action needs to be
taken to continue this lawsuit pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The Clerk of Court is DIRECTED to take the appropriate steps to reflect this change on the docket sheet.
The case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Rule 73.1 of the Local Rules for the
United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, the parties have consented
for the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings in this case
and to enter a final judgment. Based on the court’s careful review of the parties’ arguments,
the record, and the relevant case law, the court concludes that the decision of the
Commissioner is due to be REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED to the
Administrative Law Judge for further proceedings.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court reviews a social security appeal 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 will reverse the
Commissioner’s decision if it is convinced that the decision was not supported by
substantial evidence or that the proper legal standards were not applied. Carnes v. Sullivan,
936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). 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 quotations omitted). “Even if the
evidence preponderates against the Secretary’s factual findings, [the court] must affirm if
the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d
1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). Moreover, reversal is not warranted even if the court itself
would have reached a result contrary to that of the factfinder. See Edwards v. Sullivan, 937
F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991).
The substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable person would accept the
evidence in the record as adequate to support the challenged conclusion.” Holladay v.
Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1208 (11th Cir. 1988) (quoting Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207,
1209 (11th Cir. 1983)). The requisite evidentiary showing has been described as “more
than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. The court
must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached
and cannot “act as [an] automaton in reviewing the [Commissioner’s] decision.” Hale v.
Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court must consider evidence both
favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner’s decision. Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d
222, 225 (11th Cir. 1990).
The court will reverse the Commissioner’s decision on plenary review if the
decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to
determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Id. (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
medially acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
Carroll bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and he is responsible for producing
evidence to support his claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir.
A determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step
analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:
(1) Is the claimant presently unable to engage in substantial gainful activity?
(2) Is the claimant’s impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the claimant’s impairment(s) satisfy or medically 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 former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform other work given his residual
functional capacity, age, education, and work experience?
See Frame v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 596 F. App’x 908, 910 (11th Cir. 2015). “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.’” McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d
1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986) (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)).
III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
Carroll was 44 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision. R. 90. He is married
with two children and lives with his wife. R. 103. He earned a high school diploma and
holds a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications and film. R. 86, 90 & 104. He claims to
suffer from extreme pain in his right leg and foot since an injury he suffered in 2001 when
a motor vehicle ran over his foot. R. 82 & 116. The pain limits his ability to sit, stand, and
walk for extended periods of time. R. 117–22. Over the 15 years preceding the ALJ’s
decision, Carroll worked as an installation manager and salesman for companies that install
home automation, alarm, and lighting control systems. R. 106–11. Prior to the injury in
2001, he installed the systems himself. R. 110. He also managed a small restaurant in
Atlanta, Georgia. R. 110.
Following an administrative hearing, the ALJ found that Carroll suffered from the
following severe impairments under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c): “complex
regional pain syndrome, type 1, lower extremity; arthritis of right foot, status post right
foot surgery including fusion; and status post fusion site left hip.” R. 80. Despite these
severe impairments, the ALJ found, at step three of the analysis, that Carroll did not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity
of one of those listed in the applicable regulations. R. 81. The ALJ further found, at steps
four and five, that Carroll has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
“sedentary work.”2 R. 81–89. Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Carroll can perform
sedentary work with the following limitations:
[Carroll] would require an on-demand sit/stand option to relieve pain and
discomfort and he can ambulate short distances of up to 25 yards per instance
with an assisted walking device. He can never use right foot controls and
never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, or scaffolds. He can frequently balance
with an assisted walking device as well as frequently stoop, occasionally
crouch but never kneel or crawl. He can never be exposed to dangerous
machinery, dangerous tools, hazardous processes, or unprotected heights. He
can never operate commercial motor vehicles or be exposed to extreme heat,
extreme cold or vibration. He can tolerate moderate noise levels. He is
limited to routine and repetitive tasks and simple work related decisions.
Any time off task by [Carroll] would be accompanied by normal workday
R. 81. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Carroll was not disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act from August 25, 2011, his alleged disability onset date, through the
date of the ALJ’s decision, and the ALJ denied his claims. R. 91.
Carroll contends that the ALJ erred in three ways: (1) by failing to properly evaluate
the medical opinion of an examining physician, Dr. Alphonza Vester; (2) by failing to
compose a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”); and (3) by
improperly applying Social Security Ruling 03-2p. Doc. 12 at 3. Carroll also claims that
the Appeals Council committed reversible error by failing to evaluate the evidence Carroll
“Sedentary work involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying
articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves
sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties. Jobs are
sedentary if walking and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met.” 20 C.F.R.
submitted in support of his request for review. Doc. 12 at 3. Because the court concludes
that the ALJ’s failure to evaluate Carroll’s Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in
accordance with Social Security Ruling 03-2p constitutes reversible error, the remaining
three issues are mooted by the court’s decision to remand this case for further
As noted above, the ALJ concluded that Carroll’s Complex Regional Pain
Syndrome (“CRPS”) is a severe impairment under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and
416.920(c). R. 80. According to Social Security Ruling 03-2p, CRPS is a “chronic pain
syndrome most often resulting from trauma to a single extremity.” SSR 03-2p. It is
characterized by pain “out of proportion to the severity of the [initial] injury” and
abnormalities of the skin, subcutaneous tissue, and bone in the affected area. Id. The pain
is typically described as “persistent, burning, aching, or searing” and accompanied by
swelling, changes in skin color, texture, or temperature, osteoporosis, sensitivity to touch,
or “abnormal sensations of heat or cold.” Id. Pain at the site of the initial injury can often
be followed by muscle pain, joint stiffness, and limited mobility. Id. “Without appropriate
treatment, the pain and associated atrophic skin and bone changes may spread to involve
an entire limb.” Id. It typically affects individuals between the ages of 18 and 49. Id.
Carroll argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to comply with Social
Security Ruling 03-2p and requests remand for the purposes of the consideration of
“additional evidence and the making of additional administrative findings in accordance
with Ruling 03-2p.” Doc. 12 at 15.
The record demonstrates that Carroll appears to have a prototypical case of CRPS.
After the 2001 injury to his right foot, Carroll experienced severe pain, and x-rays in April
of 2002 revealed “arthritic changes” in the foot with “severe bone spurring and narrowing.”
Dr. Sameh A. Labib, Carroll’s treating physician, diagnosed him with
posttraumatic osteoarthritis and anterior tarsal syndrome as a result of crushed nerves in
the foot. R. 321. Dr. Labib informed Carroll on multiple occasions that he would never
regain the full function of his foot, and performed surgery to remove bone spurs in 2002.
R. 304–05, 316–17 & 321. Dr. Labib continued to treat Carroll regularly until 2004 and
saw him again in 2007, when he noted that Carroll’s pain persisted and x-rays of his right
foot indicated arthritis, bone spur formation, and narrowing. R. 289–90. Dr. Labib
concluded that Carroll had a “permanent disability.” R. 303. Dr. Alphonza Vester’s
consultative examination on April 17, 2013 revealed noticeable tenderness in the right foot,
a decrease in temperature of the foot, discoloration, reduced range of motion, and venous
insufficiency. R. 353. By this point, the pain had spread to Carroll’s leg, and Dr. Vester
concluded that Carroll is “moderately to severely limited” by the chronic pain in his leg
and foot. R. 353. Carroll testified that the pain varies between “dull, sharp, stabbing,
burning, [or] aching” and that his foot is extremely sensitive to touch and pressure. R. 116–
17. He also reported that the pain can be “sporadic” in that it can affect different areas of
the leg at different times, but has remained constant in the foot. R. 117. Heat and cold
make the pain worse, and he is limited in his ability to sit, stand, and walk. R. 117–20 &
Because CRPS’s pathogenesis is not fully understood and it is not a listed
impairment under the Social Security regulations, the Social Security Administration
issued SSR 03-2p “to explain its policies for developing and evaluating disability claims
based on [CRPS].” Brooks v. Barnhart, 428 F. Supp. 2d 1189, 1191 (N.D. Ala. 2006). The
ruling provides a detailed medical overview of CRPS and offers standards to be followed
by courts in evaluating claims that arise out of a CRPS diagnosis. See generally SSR 032p. The ruling instructs ALJs to determine the effect that CRPS has on a claimant’s
functional capacity by “evaluat[ing] the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the
individual’s symptoms.” Id. Specifically,
in determining RFC, all of the individual’s symptoms must be considered in
deciding how such symptoms may affect functional capacities. Careful
consideration must be given to the effects of pain and its treatment on an
individual’s capacity to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in
a work setting on a regular and continuing basis.
Id. Information from medical sources on the effects of the claimant’s CRPS on his ability
to perform work and daily activities is important, particularly if it contrasts the claimant’s
current abilities with his abilities prior to the onset of CRPS. Id. Moreover, “third-party
information,” including statements from neighbors, friends, and relatives, “helps to assess
an individual’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis and helps to depict the individual’s
capacities over a period of time.” Id. Importantly, “conflicting evidence in the medical
record is not unusual in cases of [CRPS] due to the transitory nature of its objective findings
and the complicated diagnostic process involved.” Id.
District courts within the Eleventh Circuit routinely hold that the failure to assess
the claimant’s CRPS in accordance with SSR 03-2p “undermines the ALJ’s determinations
with respect to the medical opinion evidence, Plaintiff’s credibility, and the RFC
determination.” E.g., Volk v. Astrue, 2012 WL 4466480, at *4 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 27, 2012).
Such a failure also undermines an ALJ’s hypothetical question to the vocational expert, an
issue Carroll presents here. Hill v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2011 WL 679940, at *11 (M.D.
Fla. Feb. 16, 2011); see also Doc. 12 at 9–11. An ALJ’s discounting of a CRPS claimant’s
complaints of pain, for example, “is not supported by substantial evidence without a proper
evaluation of Claimant’s [CRPS] because [CRPS] is characterized by complaints of pain
which are ‘out of proportion to the severity,’ and objective findings can be minimal.” Hill,
2011 WL 679940, at 11 (quoting SSR 03-2p). Indeed, a “disproportionate, but nevertheless
real, perception of pain is the hallmark of this neurological syndrome.” Brooks, 428 F.
Supp. 2d at 1193.
Here, the ALJ did not properly evaluate Carroll’s CRPS in accordance with the
directives of Ruling 03-2p. Though the ALJ found that Carroll’s CRPS was a severe
impairment, he concluded that Carroll’s statements “concerning the intensity, persistence
and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained
in this decision.” R. 87. After a detailed recounting of the medical records and Carroll’s
reported symptoms, the ALJ concluded that “the medical evidence does not reveal an
impairment that would be disabling or that would prevent work at the above stated residual
functional capacity.” R. 88. In support of his conclusion, the ALJ cited Carroll’s daily
activities, which consisted of going shopping with his family but often sitting in the car,3
Carroll explained that he is not “entirely housebound” in that he occasionally travels with his family when
they go shopping to “sit in the car and wait for them to go in the store and come out.” R. 123.
watching his children ride bicycles on the campus of Auburn University, and occasionally
helping to care for small farm animals. R. 88. Next, the ALJ noted “relatively infrequent
trips to the doctor,” but only referenced the period of time from July to December of 2012,
during which Carroll apparently did not seek medical care. R. 88. The ALJ then referenced
Carroll’s failure to abide by some of the directions made by his doctors and his ability to
work prior to the alleged disability onset date despite “allegedly disabling impairments
[that] were present at approximately the same level.” R. 88. Finally, the ALJ considered
Carroll’s “generally unpersuasive appearance and demeanor” at the hearing, that he
demonstrated “no evidence of pain or discomfort while testifying at the hearing,” and
treated the statements Carroll submitted from his father and two close friends “with
caution” because of these individuals’ personal relationship with Carroll and their lack of
“expertise.” R. 88–89. “In sum, the above residual functional capacity assessment is
supported by the objective evidence, treatment records, the DDS medical consultant, and
the record as a whole.” R. 89.
Notably absent from the ALJ’s opinion is any substantive application, or even
meaningful discussion, of Ruling 03-2p. Though the ALJ references the “intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects” of Carroll’s symptoms, there is no evidence that, beyond
this passing reference, he actually evaluated Carroll’s CRPS in accordance with Ruling 032p’s provisions. See R. 81–89. While there is a detailed recitation of the medical records
and Carroll’s symptoms, “‘the mere mention of diagnosis and symptoms which may be
associated with [CRPS] does not equate to an evaluation of the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of Plaintiff’s [CRPS]’ as required by SSR 03-2p.” Volk, 2012 WL 4466480,
at *4 (quoting Bernstein v. Astrue, 2010 WL 746491, at *5 n.9 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 3, 2010)).
As in Hill v. Commissioner of Social Security, the ALJ’s determination here that
Carroll’s complaints are “not entirely credible” is undercut by his failure to evaluate
Carroll’s CRPS in accordance with SSR 03-2p specifically because of the fact that a CRPS
patient’s complaints of pain are often disproportionate to the severity of the injury and
unsupported by objective medical evidence. Hill, 2011 WL 679940, at *11 (quoting SSR
03-2p). Indeed, Carroll’s credibility was critical to the ALJ’s decision to deny benefits,
but “when additional information is needed to assess the credibility of the individual’s
statements about symptoms and their effects, the adjudicator must make every reasonable
effort to obtain additional information that could shed light on the credibility of the
individual’s statements.” SSR 03-2p. The ALJ has not done so here. Further, the ALJ
noted what he perceived as relatively conservative treatment, see R. 88, but “a conservative
degree of treatment does not warrant discrediting a plaintiff suffering from [CRPS].”
Bernstein, 2010 WL 746491, at *8. Moreover, SSR 03-2p explains that third-party
information is critical in deciding the claimant’s credibility, but the ALJ gave short shrift
to the third-party statements provided by Carroll. R. 89. He granted only “some weight”
to Dr. Vester’s opinion, and solely “to the extent that this assessment is consistent with the
residual functional capacity above.” R. 89; see also SSR 03-2p. It is therefore apparent
that the ALJ did not conduct his analysis in accordance with Ruling 03-2p, and his decision
to deny benefits is undermined as a result. Thus, the court cannot conclude that his opinion
is based upon substantial evidence.
Because the ALJ here neither addressed Carroll’s CRPS in a meaningful way, nor
cited to Ruling 03-2p, “the Court is uncertain whether the ALJ was aware of the
characteristics of this ‘unique clinical syndrome’ and the Administration’s policy for
evaluating claims based on [CRPS].” Volk, 2012 WL 4466480, at *5 (quoting SSR 03-2p).
The ALJ’s analysis and considerations, many of them contrary to the instructions found in
Ruling 03-2p, reflect a need to consult the ruling and properly evaluate Carroll’s CRPS in
accordance with its directives. Accordingly, this case is due to be remanded to the
administrative law judge for further proceedings.4 Specifically, on remand, the ALJ is
directed to: (1) evaluate Carroll’s CRPS in accordance with the provisions of Ruling 032p, including by evaluating the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of Carroll’s
symptoms in conjunction with the medical evidence of record; (2) reevaluate the credibility
of Carroll’s subjective complaints of pain; (3) reevaluate the credibility of the third-party
statements Carroll has submitted; (4) reconsider Carroll’s RFC; and (5) conduct any
additionally proceedings as appropriate in light of Social Security Ruling 03-2p.
Based on the foregoing, the court cannot conclude that the Commissioner’s decision
is supported by substantial evidence and based upon the proper legal standards. It is
therefore ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner denying benefits is
Carroll argues that this court should reverse the ALJ’s denial of benefits and award benefits outright. Doc.
12 at 15. In the Eleventh Circuit, a district court may remand for entry of an order awarding benefits if “it
is clear that the cumulative effect of the evidence establishes disability without any doubt.” Davis v. Shalala,
985 F.2d 528, 534 (11th Cir. 1993). Here, without impermissibly stepping into the role of factfinder and
reweighing the evidence itself, the court cannot conclude that it is clear that the evidence establishes
Carroll’s disability without a doubt. Thus, remand is the proper remedy.
REVERSED, and this matter is REMANDED to the Administrative Law Judge for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion. A final judgment will be entered separately.
DONE this 10th day of February, 2017.
/s/ Gray M. Borden
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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?