Hagood v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 05/31/2013. (MSN)
2013 May-31 AM 10:20
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JAMES W. HAGOOD,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
The plaintiff, James W. Hagood, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his
application for a period of disability, Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Hagood timely pursued and exhausted his
administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Mr. Hagood was twenty-nine years old at the time of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision. (Tr. at 65.) He has completed twelfth grade with an
occupational diploma. (Id.) His past work experiences include employment as a
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packager and machine operator. (Tr. at 67.) Mr. Hagood claims disablity as of April
30, 2006, due to asthma and an inability to read. (Tr. at 66.)
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the
regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The
first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial
gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he or she is, the
claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is not, the
Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments
combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments
must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be
found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in the record.
See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant’s impairments
are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether
the claimant’s impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20
C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant’s impairments fall within this category, he or she
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will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a
determination of the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be made
and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant’s
impairments prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his or her past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant
cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five
requires the court to consider the claimant’s RFC, as well as the claimant’s age,
education, and past work experience in order to determine if he or she can do other
work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other
work, the claimant is not disabled. Id.
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Hagood
meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was
insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 15.) He further determined that Mr.
Hagood has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his
disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s mild mental retardation is considered
“severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, he
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found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. at 16.) The ALJ did
not find Mr. Hagood’s allegations to be totally credible and determined that Mr.
Hagood has the RFC to perform work at all exertional levels but with the following
non-exertional limitations: Plaintiff “is limited to performing simple, routine,
repetitive tasks with no reading, writing, or math, occasional public contact,
occasional change in work setting, and occasional change in decision-making.” (Tr.
According to the ALJ, Mr. Hagood is able to perform his past relevant work as
a machine operator. (Tr. at 20.) He further found that Mr. Hagood has the ability to
perform a significant range of unskilled work, or work that requires a month or less to
learn how to perform. (Id.) The ALJ used the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”)
to decide that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy
substantially similar to Mr. Hagood’s past relevant work as a machine operator. (Id.)
The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Mr. Hagood “has not been under a
disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 30, 2006, through the date
of this decision.” (Id.)
Standard of Review
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This Court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The Court approaches the factual findings of the
Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See
Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts,
weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The
substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with
considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions
from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being
supported by substantial evidence.’” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir.
1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607,
620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against
the Commissioner’s decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for
“despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court
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scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision
reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to
apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d
629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence because the hypothetical question that the ALJ posed to the VE failed to
include Dr. Estock’s determination that Plaintiff would miss 1-2 workdays a month
and would require a flexible schedule. Although not directly stated, implicit in
Plaintiff’s argument is that Dr. Estock’s findings should have been included in
Plaintiff’s RFC, and since the RFC was incomplete, the ALJ’s hypothetical question
about his capacity to perform past relevant work failed to include all of his limitations.
Plaintiff ultimately argues that because the ALJ based his reasoning on the VE’s
response to an incomplete hypothetical, the disability determination should not stand.
In July 2009, Dr. John Haney, PhD, a consultative examiner, diagnosed Plaintiff
with mild mental retardation. (Tr. at 188.) He concluded that “plaintiff’s ability to
function in most jobs appeared impaired due to intellectual and vocational
limitations.” (Id.) Later that month, Dr. Robert Estock, MD, a nonexamining
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psychiatrist, completed a Psychiatric Review Technique (“PRT”) and a Mental
Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (“MRFCA”) for Mr. Hagood. He
corroborated a diagnosis of mild mental retardation and found “moderate restriction
in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and
moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace.” (Tr. at
189, 199.) Dr. Estock concluded that while Mr. Hagood could carry out short and
simple instructions, he should have only casual interaction with the general public and
should have changes in the workplace gradually introduced. (Tr. at 205.) Finally, Dr.
Estock went one step beyond Dr. Haney, opining that Mr. Hagood could benefit from
a flexible schedule and could miss 1-2 days of work a month due to his psychological
signs and symptoms. (Id.) It is this last opinion from Dr. Estock that forms the basis
of the present appeal.
At the March 11, 2011 hearing, the ALJ heard the testimony of a VE, Mrs. Patsy
Bramlett. (Tr. at 72.) To assess Plaintiff’s step four capacity to perform past relevant
work, the ALJ questioned Mrs. Bramlett on the ability of a hypothetical person with
Plaintiff’s attributes to work as either a packager or a plastic mold injector. (Tr. at 73.)
In defining the capacity of Plaintiff’s hypothetical equivalent, the ALJ used his RFC
assessment which ignored the potential absenteeism and need for flexibility found by
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Dr. Estock. (Id.) Plaintiff argues that had the ALJ included Dr. Estock’s findings on
“excessive absenteeism and the need for a flexible work schedule,” the VE would
have reached an opposite conclusion about Plaintiff’s ability to perform his past
relevant work as a plastic mold injector, because that job and others like it do not allow
for absenteeism or scheduling flexibility. (Doc. 8 at 11.) Counsel for Plaintiff raised
these issues in his cross-examination of the VE, but the ALJ declined to consider the
disputed factors in ruling against the Plaintiff. (Tr. at 74.)
To satisfy the substantial evidence standard, “the ALJ must pose a hypothetical
question which comprises all of the claimant’s impairments.” Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d
1224, 1229 (11th Cir 1999). An ALJ may omit from hypothetical questions
characteristics or symptoms which are not supported by medical records or are
alleviated by medication. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1270 (11th Cir.
2007); see also Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1161 (11th Cir. 2004)
(refusing to consider hypothetical because it was not raised at district court but noting,
“[i]n any event, the ALJ was not required to include findings in the hypothetical that
the ALJ had properly rejected as unsupported”); Bouie v. Astrue, 226 F. App’x 892,
895 (11th Cir. 2007) (supporting an ALJ’s discrediting of one doctor’s assessment
because the findings of a second doctor were contrary); and Allen v. Barnhart, 174 F.
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App’x 497, 499 (11th Cir. 2006) (favorably citing Crawford).
Although the question presented in this appeal relates to the hypothetical
question posed to the VE, Plaintiff’s argument implies that the ALJ’s RFC
assessment, which is consistent with the hypothetical, is not supported by substantial
evidence. The basis for this argument is Plaintiff’s contention that the ALJ
inappropriately disregarded the opinion of Dr. Estock, a non-examining psychiatrist,
regarding Plaintiff’s functional non-exertional limitations. (Doc. 9 at 3.) Although
Plaintiff only raises the incomplete hypothetical issue on appeal, because the ALJ’s
RFC dictated the hypothetical posed to the VE, a discussion of the ALJ’s RFC
determination is necessary to fully evaluate whether the ALJ’s hypothetical was
appropriate. The Court thus turns to consider whether the ALJ’s RFC finding was
supported by substantial evidence, including whether appropriate weight was afforded
the medical opinions in the record.
The weight to be afforded a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity
of a claimant’s impairments depends upon, among other things, the examining and
treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the
medical source presents to support the opinion, and how consistent the opinion is
with the record as a whole. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). The opinion of
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a one-time examiner is not entitled to deference. McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619
(11th Cir. 1987) (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 619, 623 (11th Cir. 1986)). Similarly,
the opinion of a non-examining physician is entitled to little weight and, taken alone,
does not constitute substantial evidence to support an administrative decision. Swindle
v. Sullivan,914 F.2d 222, 226 n.3 (11th Cir. 1990). However, the ALJ must “state with
particularity the weight he gave different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.”
Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 327 (11th Cir. 1987). An RFC finding with sufficient
evidentiary support bolsters the validity of hypothetical questions consistent with it.
Bouie, 226 F. App’x at 895.
As an initial matter, the Court recognizes that an individual’s RFC is an issue
that is administrative in nature, not medical. Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183 at
*2. The Commissioner decides administrative issues, and the Commissioner’s
regulations put the ultimate responsibility of determining RFC with the ALJ. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2), 404.1545(a)(3), 404.1546(c), 416.927(e)(2), 416.945(a)(3),
416.946(c). The Court is interested in the doctors’ evaluations of the claimant’s
“condition and the medical consequences thereof, not their opinions of the legal
consequences of his [or her] condition.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997). Physician statements are relevant to the ALJ’s findings, but not
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determinative. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c). Ultimately, the ALJ bears
responsibility for assessing a claimant’s RFC. Id.
Dr. Estock’s conclusions about absenteeism and required work-schedule
flexibility were arguably not actual limitations on Plaintiff’s ability to work, but instead
impermissible legal conclusions. Though Dr. Estock filled out a MRFCA for the
Social Security Administration, his judgment should not supplant the ALJ’s statutory
authority to pronounce a final articulation of the RFC. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. §
404.154(c). Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision not to consider facets of Dr. Estock’s
opinion was arguably within his discretion. Yet even if this were not the case,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s RFC determination and the weight that he
gave to Dr. Estock’s opinions.
First, the Court notes that although Plaintiff objects to the ALJ’s treatment of
Dr. Estock’s opinions, in reality the ALJ approved the majority of Dr. Estock’s
findings. Indeed, the ALJ discussed approvingly Dr. Estock’s opinions regarding
Plaintiff’s restrictions on task complexity, contact with the public, and changes in the
work setting. (Tr. at 15-20.) That said, to the extent the ALJ disagreed with Dr.
Estock’s opinions, the ALJ’s assessment did not violate the discretionary limits
assigned to him by the rules. The ALJ explained the weight he gave to Dr. Estock’s
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report and supported it with evidence in the record. (Tr. at 19.) Since Dr. Estock acted
as a non-treating, non-examining physician, his opinions received a presumptively low
degree of deference, particularly as compared to those of Dr. Haney, who saw Plaintiff
in person. See McSwain, 814 F.2d at 619. As the ALJ noted, Dr. Estock’s report
presented no compelling evidence that his opinions merited higher deference than the
presumptive level. (Tr. at 19.)
With respect to Dr. Estock’s opinion that Plaintiff would require periodic
absenteeism and work-schedule flexibility, Dr. Estock’s report failed to identify
objective “signs or symptoms” supporting such limitations. (Id.) Dr. Haney’s earlier
report, upon which Dr. Estock relied, likewise failed to indicate “signs or symptoms”
from which Dr. Estock could draw his conclusions. Additionally, Plaintiff did not offer
any outside medical evidence to support Dr. Estock’s opinions. Thus, the ALJ was
reasonable in concluding that Dr. Estock offered his opinions without a medical basis.
(Tr. at 19.)
Plaintiff also argues that Dr. Estock’s opinions should have been given greater
weight because they were consistent with the rest of the record. (Doc. 8 at 10.)
Plaintiff misinterprets the legal standard in assuming that the ALJ is bound to adopt
uncontradicted opinions. Actually, the ALJ has discretion to reject uncorroborated
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medical opinions. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 404.156(c). Although there is some
consistency between Dr. Haney’s earlier report and the report from Dr. Estock, Dr.
Haney’s report does not corroborate Dr. Estock’s opinion that Plaintiff would
periodically be absent from work and need schedule flexibility. As already noted, there
is no objective medical evidence in either report supporting such limitations. Thus,
the ALJ did not err in rejecting Dr. Estock’s findings about Mr. Hagood’s need to be
absent and have a flexible schedule.
Finding no fault with the weight afforded Dr. Estock’s opinions, the Court also
finds the ALJ’s RFC assessment was reasonable. Further, the Court agrees with the
Commissioner that the ALJ had sufficient evidence to support the hypothetical
question he posed to the VE. The ALJ’s hypothetical, which was consistent with the
appropriately determined RFC, included Plaintiff’s restrictions on task complexity,
contact with others, and setting changes. (Tr. 73, 74.) The ALJ also asked the VE to
consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, work history, and functional limitations
described in the medical reports and supported by the medical evidence. (Tr. 19, 74,
188, 205.) Since Dr. Estock’s opinions about absenteeism and scheduling flexibility
were unsupported by medical records, the ALJ had discretion to omit them from his
hypothetical. See Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1270.
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Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Mr. Hagood’s
arguments, the Court finds the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will be entered.
Done this 31st day of May 2013.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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