Morris v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 9/4/15. (MRR )
2015 Sep-04 AM 10:49
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Case No.: 1:14-cv-01008-SGC
The plaintiff, Deborah Morris, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).
Morris timely pursued and exhausted her
administrative remedies, and the Commissioner’s decision is ripe for review pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s decision is due
to be affirmed.
I. Procedural History
Morris has at least a high school education and has previously worked as a bus
driver and a bookkeeper. (Tr. at 40, 45, 132, 138). In her application for DIB, she
claimed that she became disabled on May 28, 2011, due to degenerative disk disease,
back pain, neck pain, joint pain, and sleep apnea. (Id. at 53, 107, 127, 131). After her
claims were denied, Morris requested a hearing before an administrative law judge
The parties have consented to the exercise of full dispositive jurisdiction by a magistrate judge pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 12).
(“ALJ”). (Id. at 52-58). Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Morris’s claims. (Id. at 922). Morris was 47 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (Id. at 30). After the
Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s decision (id. at 1-4), that decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F. Supp. 2d 1246,
1251 N.D. Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)).
Thereafter, Morris initiated this action. (Doc. 1).
II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To establish her eligibility 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 twelve
months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
Furthermore, a claimant must show that she was disabled between her alleged initial
onset date and her date last insured. Mason v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 430 Fed. App’x 830,
831 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005);
Demandre v. Califano, 591 F.2d 1088, 1090 (5th Cir. 1979)).
The Social Security
Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual’s
eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in
“substantial gainful activity.” Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Under the first step, the
claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed. App’x 862, 863 (11th Cir.
2012). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will
determine the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first
step, the ALJ determined Morris met the Social Security Administration’s insured status
requirements through December 31, 2015, and had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since her alleged onset date of May 28, 2011. (Tr. at 14-15).
If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner
must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental
impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a
continuous period of at least twelve months.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii).
impairment “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities
which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
Id. at § 404.1508.
Furthermore, it “must be established by medical
evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the
claimant’s] statement of symptoms.” Id.; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). An impairment
is severe if it “significantly limits [the claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic
work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).2 “[A]n impairment can be considered as
not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the
Basic work activities include:
(1) [p]hysical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling,
reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) [c]apacities for seeking, hearing, and speaking; (3)
[u]nderstanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) [u]se of
judgment; (5) [r]esponding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work
situations; and (6) [d]ealing with changes in a routine work setting.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b).
individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual’s ability to work,
irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920
(11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). A claimant may be found disabled
based on a combination of impairments, even though none of her individual impairments
alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. The claimant bears the burden of providing
medical evidence demonstrating an impairment and its severity. Id. at § 404.1512(a) and
(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments,
the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)
At the second step, the ALJ determined Morris had the following severe
impairments: degenerative disc disease in the lumbar and cervical spine, pain disorder
associated with psychological features and a general medical condition, anxiety disorder,
obesity, and obstructive sleep apnea. (Tr. at 14).
If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the
Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meets or equals one of the
“Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii); see also id. at § 404.1525-26. The claimant bears the burden of
proving that her impairment meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457
Fed. App’x at 863. If the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one of the Listings, the
Commissioner will determine the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii)
and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Morris did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the
Listings. (Tr. at 15-16).
If the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the
Commissioner must determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before
proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); see also id. at § 404.1545. A
claimant’s RFC is the most he can do despite his impairment. See id. at § 404.1545(a)(1).
At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare her assessment of the claimant’s RFC
with the physical and mental demands of the claimant’s past relevant work. Id. at §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 404.1560(b). “Past relevant work is work that [the claimant]
[has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted
long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” Id. § 404.1560(b)(1). The claimant
bears the burden of proving that her impairment prevents her from performing her past
relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed. App’x at 863. If the claimant is capable of
performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1560(b)(3).
Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Morris had the RFC
to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 1567(a).
Specifically, the ALJ found that Morris should be able to alternate between sitting and
standing every 30 minutes throughout the work day; cannot climb ladders, ropes,
scaffolds, ramps, or stairs; can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can
occasionally rotate, flex, and extend her neck; can frequently handle and finger objects
with both hands; should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, vibration,
and pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas;
should avoid all exposure to hazardous machinery and unprotected heights; and is limited
to performing simple, routine, repetitive, one-to-three step tasks in a low stress job, which
is defined as requiring only occasional decision making, involving only occasional
changes in the work setting, and requiring only occasional interaction with the public and
co-workers. (Tr. at 16-20). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Morris was not
capable of performing any of her past relevant work. (Id. at 20).
If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner
must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that
exists in substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant’s RFC, age,
education, and work experience.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1),
404.1560(c)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner
will determine the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the
claimant is not capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will determine the
claimant is disabled. Id.
At the fifth step, considering Morris’s age, education, work experience, and RFC,
the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that Morris can perform, such as those of addressing clerk, charge account
clerk, and weight tester. (Tr. at 20-21). Therefore, the ALJ concluded Morris was not
disabled. (Id. at 21).
III. Standard of Review
Review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination whether that
decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied
correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
2004). A district court must review the Commissioner’s findings of fact with deference
and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for
that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260
(11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a
district court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the decision
reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler,
703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). 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
district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the
preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397,
1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
A district court reviews the Commissioner’s legal conclusions de novo. Davis v.
Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner’s] failure to apply the
correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining
that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.”
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
On appeal, Morris argues that the ALJ failed to (1) properly evaluate the
credibility of Morris’s testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects
of her symptoms and (2) articulate good cause for discounting certain opinions of her
treating physician, Mohammad Ismail, M.D. (Doc. 9).
When a claimant attempts to establish disability through her own testimony of
pain or other subjective symptoms, the pain standard articulated by the Eleventh Circuit
in Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221 (11th Cir. 1991), applies. See also Dyer v. Barnhart,
395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005).
The pain standard requires “(1) evidence of an underlying medical
condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the
severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the
objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be
reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.”
Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223). Provided the Holt pain
standard is met, an ALJ considers a claimant’s testimony of pain or other subjective
symptoms. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995).
An ALJ is permitted to discredit a claimant’s subjective testimony of pain or other
symptoms if she “clearly ‘articulate[s] explicit and adequate reasons’” for doing so.
Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62). “A clearly articulated
credibility finding with substantial supporting evidence will not be disturbed by a
reviewing court.” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1562. In determining credibility an ALJ may
consider objective medical evidence, medical opinions, and a claimant’s reported daily
activities, amongst other things. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c).
Morris testified that because of her pain she can only stand for 15 minutes and
walk for less than one block; cannot sit for a long period of time (i.e., more than 15
minutes); cannot not lift a gallon of milk; and must lie down several hours each day. (Tr.
at 33-34). The ALJ found that Morris’s testimony regarding the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of her pain was of limited credibility because it was not supported
fully by the objective medical evidence or Morris’s reported activities. (Id. at 17-20).
First, the ALJ considered MRIs of Morris’s lumbar and cervical spine. (Id. at 1718). An MRI of Morris’s lumbar spine performed in April of 2010 showed degenerative
disc disease at L3-4 and L4-5, resulting in moderate relative stenosis; a very mild annular
bulge at L5-S1 with mild facet degenerative change and no significant stenosis; and a
mild encroachment of the neural foramen at L3-4 through L5-S1. (Id. at 179). These
findings were similar to findings of an MRI of Morris’s lumbar spine performed in
September of 2008. (Id. at 179). The ALJ found this similarity to be significant because
Morris continued to work for nearly three years after the 2008 MRI and for nearly one
year more after the 2010 MRI. (Id. at 17). Contrary to Morris’s assertion (Doc. 9 at 8),
the ALJ did not incorrectly infer that Morris’s condition remained static between the
2008 and 2010 MRIs. This is exactly the inference a comparison of the MRIs supports.
An MRI of Morris’s cervical spine performed in April of 2010 showed the
vertebral body heights and disc space heights to be well maintained; mild central stenosis
secondary to right paracentral disc protrusion at C5-6; a moderate encroachment of the
neural foramen bilaterally at C5-6; and very minimal central disc protrusion at C6-7 and
T1-2 without significant stenosis. (Id. at 180).
The ALJ also considered the following objective medical evidence in assessing
Morris’s credibility: Morton Rickless, M.D. performed a consultative examination of
Morris in August of 2011. (Id. at 432-35). Dr. Rickless noted that Morris had pain in her
lower back but no limited range of motion in her neck or spasms in her neck or back. (Id.
at 433-34). He also noted that Morris had normal fine and gross motor skills, which the
ALJ found to suggest that Morris’s cervical impairment was not causing any radiating
neurological problems. (Id. at 18, 434). Finally, Dr. Rickless noted that while Morris
had difficulty getting on and off the exam table and from the supine to sitting position,
she appeared to walk somewhat better outside his office than inside. (Id. at 433). The
ALJ found that Dr. Rickless’s observation regarding the change in Morris’s gait
suggested that Morris intended to make Dr. Rickless believe her symptoms were worse
than was true. (Id. at 17, 20). The ALJ further found that this undermined Morris’s
credibility. (Id.). Morris argues that the ALJ’s reliance on Dr. Rickless’s observation is
irrational because that observation was based on pure speculation. (Doc. 9 at 11).
However, Dr. Rickless’s observation was not speculative. Rather, it was based on what
Dr. Rickless actually saw. Furthermore, the ALJ’s consideration of this observation was
appropriate. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c).
In June of 2010, Dr. Ismail, one of Morris’s treating physicians, noted tenderness
in Morris’s lower back and neck; that when bending, her range of motion was within
normal limits, although she was slow coming up; and that her gait was normal. (Id. at
184). In July of 2011, Dr. Ismail noted only mild pain on palpation of Morris’s tender
points and that Morris’s gait was normal. (Id. at 190-91). Dr. Ismail made the same
observations regarding Morris’s pain and gait in August of 2011. (Id. at 485-86). In
January of 2012, Dr. Ismail noted that Morris described moderate radiating back pain.
(Id. at 488). He found tenderness in her lower lumbar region and a decreased range of
motion in her neck due to pain. (Id. at 490). He concluded that she needed rest for three
months, referred her to aqua therapy, and instructed her to return in three months. (Id.).
However, the record of Morris’s follow-up visit in April of 2012 makes no mention of
back or neck pain. (Id. at 491-93).
In September of 2011, Robert Summerlin, Ph.D., a consultative psychologist,
diagnosed Morris with a pain disorder associated with both psychological factors and a
general medical condition. (Id. at 438). The ALJ found that this diagnosis suggests
Morris dwells on her pain, which may not be as severe as she believes. (Id. at 18).
Second, the ALJ considered Morris’s daily activities and found that they showed
she was more capable than she alleged, thereby undermining her credibility. (Id. at 20).
Specifically, the ALJ noted that Morris cares for her family and various animals,
performs light chores, regularly shops and drives, attends church two times per week, and
regularly scrapbooks with others. (Id. at 19, 20). Morris argues that her participation in
these activities is more limited than insinuated by the ALJ. (Doc. 9 at 9). However,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s findings of fact. Morris completed a function
report indicating that she performs light chores and cares for her family and animals with
help, drives, and shops once per week. (Tr. at 146-53). Furthermore, Morris testified
that she scrapbooks on her own and with friends and attends church twice each week.
(Id. at 38). Morris also argues that her participation in these activities does not disqualify
her from disability. (Doc. 9 at 10). Even so, the ALJ was allowed to consider the same
in assessing Morris’s credibility. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c); Connor v. Astrue, 415
Fed. App’x 992, 995 (11th Cir. 2011). The ALJ also noted that approximately six months
before the hearing, Morris assisted her husband in ripping up carpet. (Id. at 44-45, 491).
Morris argues that the ALJ misconstrued her participation in this activity because she
testified that she merely held the corner of some carpet so her husband could pull out a
staple. (Doc. 9 at 10). It is not clear that the ALJ characterized Morris’s participation in
this activity in the way Morris claims. The ALJ merely noted that Morris “help[ed] her
husband pull up carpet” and “help[ed] rip up carpet.” (Tr. at 19-20). In any event, a
record of Morris’s visit to Dr. Ismail shortly after the incident in questions states that
Morris, herself, reported “she was pulling up carpet” and injured her elbow. (Id. at 491).
In sum, the ALJ sufficiently articulated his reasons for discrediting Morris’s
testimony as to her pain and its limiting effects, and that credibility determination is
supported by substantial evidence.
B. Treating Physician’s Opinions
In a letter dated June 19, 2012, and addressed to “whom it may concern,” Dr.
Ismail opined as follows:
Ms. Morris is not able to sit, stand, stoop, or bend for any given (sic) of
time due to her chronic neck pain and severe back pain. Ms. Morris is not
able to drive for a long period of time due to her chronic back pain and
severe neck pain. Ms. Morris is permanently disabled due to her decline in
her medical conditions. Ms. Morris is not able to sit for more than 30
minutes at any given (sic) of time, she is not able to stand more than 30
minutes at any given time, she is not able to bend for more than 10 minutes
at any given (sic) of time due to her chronic neck pain and chronic back
(Tr. at 515). The ALJ gave partial weight to Dr. Ismail’s opinion as to Morris’ functional
capacity and no weight to Dr. Ismail’s opinion that Morris is disabled. (Id. at 19).
Morris argues that the opinions Dr. Ismail expressed in his June 19th letter were entitled
to substantial or considerable weight absent good cause to discredit them. (Doc. 9 at 47).
Morris is correct that “[a]bsent ‘good cause,’ an AJL is to give the medical
opinions of treating physicians ‘substantial or considerable weight.’”
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan,
125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(1)-(2),
416.927(d)(1)-(2)). However, Dr. Ismail’s opinions as to Morris’s functional capacity
and disability are not medical opinions, but rather opinions on issues reserved to the
Commissioner. “ ‘Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or
other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of
[the claimant’s] impairment, including [the claimant’s] symptoms, diagnosis and
prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment, and [the claimant’s]
physical or mental restrictions.’” See Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178-79 (quoting 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2)). An opinion as to a claimant’s functional capacity or
whether a claimant is able to work is not a medical opinion, even if offered by a treating
source, but rather a dispositive finding for the Commissioner to make. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(e)(1) & (2); SSR 96-5p; Kelly v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 401 Fed. App’x 403, 407
(11th Cir. 2010). Because Dr. Ismail’s opinions as to Morris’s functional capacity and
disability are opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner, not medical opinions,
they are entitled to no special significance. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(3); SSR 96-5p;
Kelly, 401 Fed. App’x at 407.
Even so, the ALJ considered these opinions as instructed by the social security
regulations. See Lawton v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 431 Fed. App’x 830, 834 (11th Cir.
2011) (ALJ should still consider doctor’s opinion on issues reserved to Commissioner)
(citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)); SSR 96-5p. In assigning weight to medical opinions, an
ALJ may consider many factors, including whether a medical opinion is well-supported
and consistent with a claimant’s records. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d); Wilcox v. Comm’r,
Soc. Sec. Admin., 442 Fed. App’x 438, 439 (11th Cir. 2011). Here, the ALJ justified the
assignation of partial weight to Dr. Ismail’s opinions as to Morris’s functional capacity
and no weight to Dr. Ismail’s opinion that Morris is disabled on several grounds.
First, the ALJ noted that Dr. Ismail’s opinions seemed premised on Morris’s
subjective statements of her pain, while objective evidence demonstrated Morris’s
allegations regarding the severity of her pain were not credible. (Tr. at 19). As discussed
above, the ALJ sufficiently articulated his reasons for discrediting Morris’s testimony of
her pain and its limiting effect, and that credibility determination is supported by
Second, the ALJ noted that Dr. Ismail’s opinions seemed inconsistent with
Morris’s testimony that she helped her husband pull up carpet approximately six months
before the hearing. (Id. at 19). Third, the ALJ noted that Morris testified that she was the
primary caretaker for her 11-year-old son and a 20-acre home site because her husband
was a truck driver and consistently on the road during the week. (Id. at 19). Finally, the
ALJ noted that Morris’s daily activities demonstrate that she has more functional capacity
than Dr. Ismail opined. (Id.). In other words, the same evidence that undermined
Morris’s testimony as to her physical capabilities also undermines Dr. Ismail’s opinions
as to Morris’s physical capabilities. The ALJ properly weighed Dr. Ismail’s opinions
based on the factors enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d), and his finding that those
opinions were entitled to partial and no weight, respectively, is supported by substantial
Having reviewed the administrative record and considered all of the arguments
presented by the parties, the undersigned find the Commissioner’s decision is supported
by substantial evidence and in accordance with applicable law. Therefore, that decision
is due to be AFFIRMED. A separate order will be entered.
DONE this 4th day of September, 2015.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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