Headrick v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 7/11/2012. (JLC)
2012 Jul-11 AM 10:17
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
) Case No.: 2:10-CV-3372-VEH
Plaintiff Stephen Headrick (“Headrick”) brings this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act. He seeks review of a final
adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), who denied his applications for Child’s Insurance
Benefits (“CIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).1 Headrick timely
pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies available before the
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant
seeks CIB or SSI. However, separate, parallel statutes and regulations exist for CIB and SSI
claims. Therefore, citations in this opinion should be considered to refer to the appropriate
parallel provision as context dictates. The same applies to citations of statutes or regulations
found in quoted court decisions.
Commissioner. The case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g)
of the Social Security Act.2
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Headrick was a 19-year-old male at the time he applied for disability benefits,
and he was 22 years old at the time of his hearing before the administrative law judge
(hereinafter “ALJ”). (Tr. 12, 14). He has a limited education, having left school in
the ninth or tenth grade, and can communicate in English. (Tr. 22, 77). He has no
past relevant work experiences. (Tr. 21). Headrick claims he became disabled on
January 1, 1995, due to legal blindness in his left eye, degenerative disc disease,
scoliosis, shooting pain down his left leg, and asthma. (Tr. 17). He has not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 14).
Headrick protectively filed concurrent applications for CIB and SSI on June
15, 2007. (Tr. 12, 140–44). His claims were denied by the Regional Commissioner
on August 13, 2007. (Tr. 99–107). Headrick timely requested a hearing, which was
held on October 6, 2009, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Tr. 12, 50–92). The ALJ
concluded that Headrick was not disabled and issued his written decision denying his
applications for benefits on November 2, 2009. (Tr. 12–23). The ALJ’s decision
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) renders the judicial review provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
fully applicable to claims for SSI.
became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied
Headrick’s request for review on October 13, 2010. (Tr. 1–3).
Headrick, proceeding pro se, filed his Complaint on December 7, 2010, which
asks this court to review the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 1). The court issued a briefing
letter to all parties on October 11, 2011. (Doc. 7). Headrick elected not to file any
brief in support of his position on appeal. The Commissioner filed a brief in support
of its position on December 27, 2011. (Doc. 8). This court has carefully considered
the record and affirms the decision of the ALJ.
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). This court will
determine that the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a
preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must
be upheld by the court. The ALJ’s legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ’s decision must be reversed. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F. 2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for disability benefits and establish her entitlement for a period of
disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the
Regulations promulgated thereunder.3 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
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499, revised as of April 1, 2007.
impairment” which “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
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 Secretary;
whether the claimant can perform her past work; and
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in
the national economy.
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to former applicable C.F.R.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561 (7th Cir.
1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “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 Secretary 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.
FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE
The ALJ found that Headrick had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
from his alleged onset date of January 1, 1995. (Tr. 14). He also found that the
medical evidence supported a finding that Headrick’s impairments of left eye
blindness, degenerative disc disease, chondromalacia patellae, and obesity were
“severe” according to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). (Id.). The ALJ then
concluded that those medically determinable impairments, in combination, do not
meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1 of the Social Security Regulations. (Tr. 15). The ALJ determined that
Headrick had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform “light work”4 with
the following limitations: he can occasionally lift and carry twenty pounds; he can
frequently lift and carry ten pounds; he can stand and walk six hours in an eight-hour
workday; he can sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; he can occasionally balance,
stoop, kneel, couch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; he cannot climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; he should not be exposed for concentrated amounts of time to
extreme cold, environmental irritants (such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, or poor
ventiliation), moving machinery, or hazardous heights; and his job should
According to the Regulations, “light work” involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a
time and up to 10 pounds frequently. 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b).
accommodate his monocular vision and resultant limitation in his depth perception
and field of vision. (Tr. 16–17). Based on this RFC and the testimony of the
vocational expert, and using the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (hereinafter “grids”)
at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, as a framework for decisionmaking,
the ALJ concluded that there were a significant number of jobs in the national
economy that Headrick could perform, such as cashier, gate guard, surveillance
system monitor, and switch board operator. (Tr. 22). Therefore, he concluded that
Headrick was not disabled. (Id.).
Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Headrick was not eligible for CIB
because he was not disabled under § 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Likewise, he
was not eligible for SSI because he was not disabled under § 1614(a)(3)(A) of the
Social Security Act. (Tr. 23).
Keeping in mind the narrowly circumscribed scope of this court’s review of the
Commissioner’s decision, the court has “scrutinize[d] the record as a whole to
determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial
evidence.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. Based on its independent review, the
court determines that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial
evidence and that proper legal standards were applied. Accordingly, the ALJ’s
decision is due to be affirmed.
Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s RFC Determination
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Headrick had the
RFC to perform a limited range of light work. The ALJ described in detail the
claimant’s alleged symptoms and the extent to which he accepted them as consistent
with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. (Tr. 16–21). The ALJ
properly applied the relevant legal standards by using the two-step process of first
determining whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental
impairment—i.e., an impairment that can be shown by medically acceptable clinical
and laboratory diagnostic techniques—and, second, determining whether the
impairment(s) could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant’s pain or other
symptoms. (Tr. 17). After discussing in depth Headrick’s medical records, (Tr.
17–20), the ALJ concluded that “the claimant’s subjective complaints are simply not
substantiated by the objective medical records.” (Tr. 21). He summarized:
Diagnostic tests of [Headrick]’s back show only mild spinal
irregularities (Exhibit 1F), and at his last visit with Dr. Bucco, which
was less than two months before his hearing, he rated his pain as three
on a scale from one to 10, exhibited negative straight leg raises, and
reported that he was walking for exercise and had ordered a weight set
to start working out. This evidence is not consistent with the claimant’s
allegations of disability. The records show improvement in [Headrick]’s
medical condition, not worsening as he alleges. As such, I find
[Headrick]’s allegations, and the supporting testimony of his parents, are
not fully credible to the extent that they are inconsistent with the [RFC]
assessment determined in this decision.
The court has reviewed Headrick’s subjective complaints that he is unable to
work due to left eye blindness (Tr. 58), degenerative disc disease (Tr. 59), scoliosis
(Tr. 60), asthma (Tr. 61), and anxiety (Tr. 73). However, upon reviewing the
documented medical evidence, the court finds that the ALJ’s determination that
Headrick can perform a limited range of light work is substantially supported. More
specifically, as to the left eye blindness, there is limited supportive medical evidence
indicating that Headrick’s vision is a disabling or vocationally limiting condition.
(See, e.g., Tr. 206, 226, 227, 248). In fact, medical records from Dodge City Medical
Clinic on August 13, 2009, reflect that Headrick “[d]enies . . . vision problems.” (Tr.
251). The ALJ noted the paucity of evidence concerning Headrick’s eyesight
limitations, but he accepted Headrick’s subjective allegations for the purposes of his
decision and “incorporated limitations resulting therefrom in [his] assessment of
[Headrick]’s [RFC].” (Tr. 20–21). Accordingly, the ALJ limited Headrick’s RFC to
work that allows for monocular vision. (Tr. 17).
Concerning Headrick’s history of degenerative disc disease and scoliosis, and
attendant back pain, the most recent medical records indicate that Headrick’s back
problems have been improving. For instance, on physical exam in May of 2007, one
of Headrick’s primary treating physicians, Dr. Kammerman, observed that Headrick
“doesn’t really have weakness” and that “his gait looks good.” (Tr. 19, 221).
Similarly, in June 2007, Dr. Kammerman noted that Headrick “ambulates well” and
exhibited “normal strength and reflexes in the right lower limb without sensory loss”
despite Headrick’s complaints of pain and tingling in that area. (Tr. 19, 219). Dr.
Bucco, another of Headrick’s treating physicians, also noted significant improvement
of Headrick’s back condition between March 2009 and August 2009. (See Tr. 19,
251–65). On August 13, 2009, records from Dodge City Medical Clinic state that
Headrick “complains of pinching pain in back,” but notes that “[p]ain medication
helps with pain management,” and that “[patient]’s pain has been controlled under
current strategy.” (Tr. 251). The same record reported that Headrick was “trying to
perform low impact exercise in the form of walking,” that Headrick is “[a]ble to
perform the activities of daily living,” and that he had “[n]o leg pain with walking.”
As to Headrick’s asthma condition, the ALJ correctly noted that Headrick was
strongly urged to use Advair as prescribed, and that he was advised to quit smoking,
but despite these recommendations, Headrick was “not ready” to do so and continued
to smoke up to a pack of cigarettes a day. (Tr. 15, 206, 208, 227). In addition, Dr.
Kathleen Lewis noted on March 6, 2006, that Headrick was not taking the Advair
twice a day as prescribed. (Tr. 15, 208).
And finally, as to Headrick’s allegations of social anxiety, the medical evidence
does not support a finding that his anxiety is a demonstrable disabling limitation. As
the ALJ noted, Headrick has not received any documented mental health treatment
and “no medications have been prescribed for psychologically-based symptoms.”
(Tr. 15). Moreover, the record includes several notations of normal mental status
findings. (See, e.g., Tr. 230, 252, 255, 258, 261, 264).
Additionally, the ALJ addressed and considered several other conditions that
Headrick did not address in his testimony or disability applications, but which appear
in his medical records. For instance, the ALJ discussed Headrick’s diagnosis of
obesity, as well as a documented knee impairment. (Tr. 20). Neither of those
conditions, however, resulted in any documented functional limitations that would
limit Headrick to a more restricted RFC. For all these reasons, the ALJ’s RFC
assessment was substantially supported by the record and correctly determined under
the proper legal standards.
The ALJ Properly Rejected The Consultative Examiner’s Opinion
Because It Was Inconsistent With The Findings of the Treating Physicians
The ALJ gave “significant weight” to the opinions of Dr. Finley, a state agency
medical consultant, which concluded that Headrick could perform a limited range of
light work. (Tr. 21, 241–49).
The ALJ found Dr. Finley’s records to be “consistent
with the evidence as a whole” and “based on a thorough evaluation of the record.”
(Tr. 21). Unlike Dr. Finley’s records, however, the ALJ rejected the opinion of
consultative examiner Dr. Datta because it was inconsistent with the findings of the
treating physicians. (See, e.g., Tr. 21, 226–31). The ALJ also noted that Dr. Datta
did not receive any medical information from Headrick’s treating physicians before
giving his opinion. (Tr. 21, 226). The Eleventh Circuit has held that substantial
weight must be given to the opinion of a treating physician in determining disability.
Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The Eleventh Circuit has
also explained that a physician’s opinion may not be dismissed without good cause.
Id. Good cause exists where 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 the physician’s own medical records.
Id. Therefore, the ALJ properly articulated his concern that Dr. Datta inconsistently
found Headrick more limited than the opinions of his treating physicians. (Tr. 21).
In sum, the court finds that substantial evidence supports each of the ALJ’s
findings and, therefore, he correctly concluded that Headrick was not disabled within
the meaning of the Social Security Act.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the
submissions of the parties, the court finds that the Commissioner’s final decision is
supported by substantial evidence and applies the proper legal standards.
Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed by separate order.
DONE and ORDERED this the 11th day of July, 2012.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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