Smith v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Annemarie Carney Axon on 11/20/2020. (KAM)
2020 Nov-20 PM 03:10
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Case No.: 1:19-cv-01943-ACA
Plaintiff Barbara Smith appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying her claim for supplemental security income. Based on the court’s
review of the administrative record and the parties’ briefs, the court WILL
AFFIRM the Commissioner’s decision.
Ms. Smith applied for supplemental security income, alleging that her
disability began on January 1, 2016. (R. at 10). She later amended that date to
December 23, 2016. (R. at 10, 247). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Smith’s
claims (R. at 10), and Ms. Smith requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) (id.). After holding a hearing (id.), the ALJ ruled against Ms. Smith
(R. at 10–20). Ms. Smith appealed the ALJ’s ruling, but the Appeals Council denied
Ms. Smith’s request for review. (R. at 1–3). Thus, the Commissioner’s decision is
final and ripe for the court’s judicial review. 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The court “must determine whether the Commissioner’s decision is
supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks
omitted). “Under the substantial evidence standard, this court will affirm the ALJ’s
decision if there exists such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept
as adequate to support a conclusion.” Henry v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264,
1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted). The court may not “decide the
facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ].”
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quotation marks omitted). The court must affirm
“[e]ven if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings.”
Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158–59 (11th Cir. 2004)
(quotation marks omitted).
Despite the deferential standard for review of claims, the court must
“scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable
and supported by substantial evidence.” Henry, 802 F.3d at 1267 (quotation marks
omitted). Moreover, the court must reverse the Commissioner’s decision if the ALJ
does not apply the correct legal standards. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143,
1145–46 (11th Cir. 1991).
To determine whether an individual is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step,
sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or
combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or
equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of
Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past
relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are
significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant
can perform given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.
Here, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the date of the alleged onset of her disability. (R. at 12). The
ALJ found that Ms. Smith’s history of obesity, degenerative disc disease and
stenosis of the lumbar spine, asthma with tobacco use, diabetes mellitus with
reported neuropathy, and bipolar affective disorder are severe impairments. (Id.).
The ALJ then concluded that Ms. Smith did not suffer from an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of
the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.).
After considering the evidence, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith had the
residual functional capacity to perform light work with certain additional limitations.
(R. at 14). Ms. Smith’s limitations include: the inability to climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; limited exposure to temperature extremes, dust, odors, fumes, or
pulmonary irritants; the inability to use vibrating tools or equipment; and no
exposure to unprotected heights. (Id.). In addition, Ms. Smith would not be able to
carry out complex instructions or engage in long term planning or negotiation. (Id.).
She can make simple, work-related decisions and tolerate occasional interaction with
supervisors, but she can have no more than superficial interaction with members of
the general public. (Id.).
Based on Ms. Smith’s residual functional capacity and the testimony of a
vocational expert, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith could perform her past relevant
work as a house cleaner. (Id. at 19). The vocational expert also found that jobs exist
in the national economy that Ms. Smith can perform at the light exertional level,
including assembler or hand packer. (R. at 129). Accordingly, the ALJ determined
that Ms. Smith has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from September 9, 2016, through the date of the decision on November 16, 2018.
(Id. at 7, 20).
Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ failed to correctly apply the pain standard.
(Doc. 9 at 7). Specifically, Ms. Smith claims that the ALJ did not properly consider
evidence that Ms. Smith’s back pain made her unable to perform a light range of
work, and that the ALJ did not consider substantial evidence of Ms. Smith’s overall
pain. (Doc. 9 at 7–8).
In the Eleventh Circuit, a claimant must follow a two-step process to establish
disability through testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). First, the claimant must present
evidence of an underlying medical condition. Id. Next, the claimant must show
either (1) “objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain
arising from that condition” or (2) “that the objectively determined medical
condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the
alleged pain.” Id.
Here, the Commissioner does not dispute that Ms. Smith presented evidence
of back pain and mental impairments. (See R. at 18). Thus, the only question before
the court is whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that
Ms. Smith’s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of
[her] symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other
evidence in the record.” (R. at 18).
The ALJ’s decision demonstrates that he “considered [Ms. Smith’s] medical
condition as a whole.” Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1211. Although Ms. Smith’s records
contain medical evidence that could be construed to benefit Ms. Smith, it is not this
court’s prerogative to reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for the ALJ’s.
See Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s credibility
determination. First, Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ should have given more
consideration to the medical records showing a single MRI’s findings of advanced
degenerative spondylosis. (R. at 426; Doc. 9 at 8). However, “there is no rigid
requirement that the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his
decision.” Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1211. Based on the entirety of Ms. Smith’s medical
records, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith’s complaints were not consistent with
the objective medical evidence.
Ms. Smith testified that her back pain was her main debilitating ailment. (R.
at 116). But the ALJ noted that the treatment for Ms. Smith’s back pain had been
consistently conservative, only including medication.
(R. at 16).
received no physical therapy, surgery, or other type of pain management. (Id.).
Although Ms. Smith was referred to a neurosurgeon for her back, there is no
performance or even recommendation of surgery present in Ms. Smith’s medical
records. (R. at 441, 505, 517). No medical record from a neurosurgeon was even
presented. Evidence of a conservative course of treatment, like the one here,
discredits a claimant’s testimony regarding the level of their pain. Wolfe v. Chater,
86 F.3d 1072, 1078 (11th Cir. 1996).
Ms. Smith went to the Emergency Room at Stringfellow Memorial Hospital
three times since 2014, and on only one of those occasions did she complain of back
pain. (R. at 383–89, 403). During that one occasion in 2016 the nurse’s notes state
that “at their worst the symptoms were moderate.” (R. at 403). In addition,
Dr. McKitty, Ms. Smith’s treating physician, commented that there was “no acute
distress” in Ms. Smith’s back when she came in complaining of back pain. (R. at
There are also notes throughout Ms. Smith’s medical records indicating that
she did not comply with her prescribed medication or that she failed to show up for
appointments. (R. at 452, 474, 504). The ALJ can consider noncompliance as a
factor that discredits allegations of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.930(b); see also
Dawkins v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1988) (“[T]he refusal to follow
prescribed medical treatment without a good reason will preclude a finding of
disability.”). Here, Dr. McKitty notes that Ms. Smith “did not go to scheduled
appointments.” (R. at 504). Also, Ms. Smith did not consistently take her prescribed
medications for bipolar disorder or attend her psychiatric therapy appointments. (R.
at 452, 474).
The ALJ found that because Ms. Smith showed consistent
noncompliance in taking her medication and attending appointments that her
“symptoms might not have been as limiting as  alleged.” (R. at 19).
A large portion of Ms. Smith’s medical records deal with her mental state and
not her back pain.
In conversations with her psychiatrist, Dr. Jorge Castro,
Ms. Smith explained that she was under significant stress. (R. at 345). Not only was
she taking care of her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s disease, she also had custody
of her two grandchildren, because her daughters were either incarcerated or unable
to care for the children due to drug addictions. (R. at 18, 279). Dr. Castro
consistently reported that Ms. Smith was depressed and anxious but alert, logical,
goal-directed, and cooperative. (R. at 353, 355, 358). Her life was overwhelmed
with stressors, but about a year into the therapy Ms. Smith reported that she was
“doing good.” (R. at 469).
Ms. Smith argues that Eleventh Circuit caselaw prohibits an ALJ from
denying a claim based on participation in everyday activities of short duration. (Doc.
9 at 12) (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1441 (11th Cir. 1997) (“Nor do
we believe that participation in everyday activities of short duration, such as
housework or fishing, disqualifies a claimant from disability.”)). Ms. Smith also
contends that, “[i]t is well established that sporadic or transitory activity does not
disprove disability.” (Id.) (citing Smith v. Califano, 637 F. 2d 968, 971–72 (3d Cir.
But the ALJ did not deny Ms. Smith’s claim based on her participation in
everyday activities of short duration. First, both the hearing testimony and report by
the state agency team psychologist, Dr. Leslie Rogers, indicate that Ms. Smith is a
caregiver to multiple others besides herself and can do an array of personal and
caregiving activities on her own. (R. at 116, 121, 137). Specifically, the evidence in
Ms. Smith’s file “supports no more than moderate limitations” on her capacity to
work. (R. at 137).
Second, the ALJ relied on more than just Ms. Smith’s testimony about her
daily activities to find that her description of the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of her symptoms were not consistent with the record. (See R. at 27–28). The
ALJ examined all of Ms. Smith’s medical records in conjunction with Ms. Smith’s
personal activities. The ALJ also considered testimony from the vocational expert,
medical consultants, psychological consultants, and evidence from non-medical
sources such as family and friends. This evidence shows that Ms. Smith has been
engaging in daily activities that include a light range of work throughout the
problems with her back and mental impairments. Substantial evidence supports the
ALJ’s credibility determination and her application of the pain standard.
In October of 2016, Ms. Smith reported that in one day she would often wake
up at 5:30 a.m. to get her grandchildren ready for school, take care of her ill mother,
do household chores, take her grandkids to their afterschool activities, and get them
ready for bed. (R. at 279). Ms. Smith is able to take care of her grandchildren,
despite describing it as a “24/7” activity. (R. at 286). She is also able to shop for
groceries, household items, and Christmas gifts. (R. at 285). Ms. Smith’s close
family friend, Chris McFarland, said that Ms. Smith took care of her mother by
bathing her, feeding her, and doing all of the housework. (R. at 251). Ms. Smith is
involved in the community, goes to church regularly, and attends football games.
(R. at 255). Ms. Smith does comment that she is unable to attend some events alone,
but the fact that she can attend at all indicates that her pain levels may not be as
debilitating as she describes.
Ms. Smith claims that her daughters help her with their children “sometimes
when they are here.” (R. at 283). There were multiple reported fights with her
daughters, some of them even turning physical. (R. at 485). Most recently in 2018,
Ms. Smith was appointed guardian to her eight-year-old grandson, because her
daughter who was just released from prison “doesn’t want anything to do with her
son.” (R. at 544). The ALJ found that Ms. Smith’s ability to perform daily living
activities contradicts her allegation that she is unable to work in any capacity. (R. at
19). Instead, it is consistent with the ability to perform a light range of work. (Id.)
Finally, based on Ms. Smith’s residual functional capacity and the testimony
of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith could perform her past
relevant work as a house cleaner. (R. at 20). The vocational expert also found that
jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Smith can perform at a light exertional
level, including assembler or hand packer. (R. at 129). Since Ms. Smith is able to
perform her past work, as well as seek out additional employment, disability is not
warranted in this circumstance. As indicated, the ALJ’s reliance on the testimony
of the vocational expert was proper and supports the finding that Ms. Smith is not
disabled and is capable of performing jobs available in the national economy.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s denial of Ms. Smith’s application for
supplemental security income and this court WILL AFFIRM the Commissioner’s
decision. The court will enter a separate order consistent with this memorandum
DONE and ORDERED this November 20, 2020.
ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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