Webb v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 7/3/2012. (JLC)
2012 Jul-03 PM 03:10
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ANGELA DENISE WEBB,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
) Case No.: 2:11-CV-1172-VEH
Plaintiff Angela Denise Webb (“Ms. Webb”) brings this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final
adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), who denied her application for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).1 Ms. Webb timely
pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner.
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant
seeks DIB or SSI. However, separate, parallel statutes and regulations exist for DIB 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.
The case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Ms. Webb was a 40-year-old female at the time of her hearing before the
administrative law judge (hereinafter “ALJ”). (Tr. 31). The highest level of education
she completed was the eighth grade. (Tr. 31, 193). Her past work experiences include
employment as a folder, fast food cashier, and a cleaner/housekeeper. (Tr. 37-38).
Ms. Webb claims she became disabled on September 1, 2008, due to migraines, back
problems, high blood pressure, a nerve condition, and chronic pain. (Tr. 17, 99–100,
188). Her last period of employment ended on June 1, 2006, when she quit her job.
(Tr. 188). Though she sought additional employment after that, she was not able to
secure another job. (Tr. 45). Ms. Webb protectively filed concurrent applications for
SSI and a period of DIB on January 9, 2009. (Tr. 145–54). Her claims were denied
by the Regional Commissioner on April 8, 2009. (Tr. 101–10). Ms. Webb timely
requested a hearing (Tr. 90–93), which was held on May 18, 2010, in Birmingham,
Alabama. (Tr. 17, 111). The ALJ concluded that Ms. Webb was not disabled and
issued his written decision denying her application for benefits on June 11, 2010. (Tr.
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.
17–21). The ALJ’s decision denying benefits became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Ms. Webb’s request for review on
February 2, 2011. (Tr. 1–8).
Ms. Webb filed her Complaint on April 4, 2011, which asks this court to review
the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 1). 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 impairment” which “must
result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be
shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20
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.
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 Ms. Webb had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
from her alleged onset date of September 1, 2008. (Tr. 18). He also found that the
medical evidence supported a finding that Ms. Webb’s impairments of depression and
morbid obesity were “severe” according to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c).
(Tr. 18). 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. 18-19). The
ALJ determined that Ms. Webb had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to
perform “light work”4 that allows for the following non-exertional limitations: can
understand, remember, and complete simple tasks; concentration/memory for detailed
tasks would be limited by cognitive/emotional factors; can maintain attention
sufficiently to complete simple 1-to-2 step tasks for periods of at least two hours,
without need for special supervision or extra work breaks; can maintain basic standards
of personal hygiene and grooming; is able to complete an 8-hour work day, provided
customary work breaks are provided; would function best with a flexible daily schedule
in a well-spaced work setting; can tolerate casual, non-intense interaction with
members of the general public and co-workers; supervision and criticism should be
supportive and non-confrontational; changes in the work environment or expectations
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).
should be infrequent and introduced gradually; and can set ordinary work goals, but
may need assistance with planning or complex goals. (Tr. 19). Given this RFC, and
considering the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Webb
could perform her past relevant work as a cashier. (Tr. 20). Therefore, he concluded
that Ms. Webb was not disabled. (Id.).
Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Webb was not eligible for DIB
because she was not disabled under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.
Likewise, he found she was not eligible for SSI because she was not disabled under §
1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 20–21).
The court can reverse a finding of the Secretary if it is not supported by
substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ms. Webb asserts that the ALJ’s decision
was not supported by substantial evidence because the “the ALJ misinterpreted the
opinion of his own consultative psychologist, Dr. Samuel A. Saxon.” (Doc. 10 at 8).
More specifically, she contends:
It is not that the ALJ accorded minimal weight to Dr. Saxon. It is that the
ALJ did not understand what Dr. Saxon said and in fact indicated that Dr.
Saxon thought [Ms. Webb] was malingering. Dr. Saxon stated she was
unreliable, but he did not at any time state that she was malingering and
in fact indicated in the last paragraph that she would not even be capable
of managing her financial benefits. [Ms. Webb] submits that the ALJ
should have understood the difference between being histrionic and
malingering as these are not the same thing, and [Ms. Webb] submit[s]
that the ALJ’s substituting his own opinion for that of Dr. Saxon is
(Id. at 8–9). The alleged misinterpretation of Dr. Saxon’s opinion is the only specific
example that Ms. Webb offers the court to demonstrate that the ALJ in this case failed
in his duties to act impartially, fully consider the medical evidence, and to fairly
develop the record. (See id. at 8–11). However, the court has reviewed the record,
including the detailed opinion of Dr. Saxon (Tr. 282–85), and finds that the ALJ
accurately interpreted and described Dr. Saxon’s opinion. Specifically, as to the issue
of “malingering,” Dr. Saxon indeed used this word to describe his impression of Ms.
Webb during his examination. He stated, “it is certainly felt that there was an element
of not only exaggeration bur perhaps even malingering on this woman’s part in spite
of very genuine presentation of a very miserable human being.” (Tr. 284) (emphasis
added). Thus, the ALJ correctly opined that “[t]he repot of Dr. Saxon suggests
malingering on the part of the claimant.” (Tr. 20) (emphasis in original).
Moreover, reviewing the ALJ’s opinion in toto, the court finds that the ALJ did
not rely exclusively on Dr. Saxon’s suggestion of malingering in reaching his
determination concerning Ms. Webb’s RFC and her ability to perform her past relevant
work. The ALJ expressly relied on several other aspects of Ms. Webb’s medical
record in addition to Dr. Saxon’s report, such as the vocational limitations reported by
Dr. Dale Leonard and the overall records of Ms. Webb’s treating and examining
physicians. (See, e.g., Tr. 19 (“I find persuasive the vocational limitations as reported
by Dr. Dale Leonard (Exhibit 2F, p3), and concluded that the claimant is capable of
functioning pretty well at the present time.”); id. at 20 (“No treating doctor has
indicated that the claimant is disabled or in any way unable to perform work related
activities. . . . Treatment records indicate that she is independent in activities of daily
living and consistently cleared for work.”). Further, in reaching his conclusion of not
disabled, the ALJ expressly relied on the testimony of Ms. Webb herself and that of the
vocational expert. (See, e.g., Tr. 19 (“In reaching these conclusions, I point out that
the claimant reported taking care of her children, not them her (Exhibit 7E).”); id. at 20
(“By [Ms. Webb’s] own admission, she worked until she had a confrontation with her
supervisor.”); id. (“At the hearing I asked Dr. Green, the vocational expert, to identify
work performed by the claimant in the past fifteen years, indicating the title of the job
and the exertional and skill level of each job. . . . I then asked the doctor as to whether
the above-described residual functional capacity would preclude the performance of
any of the related jobs. Dr. Green testified that the [RFC] would not preclude the
performance of work as a Cashier.”).
All of these observations by the ALJ point to substantial evidence supporting his
determination that Ms. Webb is capable of performing her past relevant work and,
therefore, not disabled under the Social Security Act. Notably, Ms. Webb does not
argue that the record is incomplete or missing any information that would be necessary
for the ALJ to have rendered an informed decision on her applications; likewise, she
does not contend that the ALJ should have obtained any additional medical records.
Instead, Ms. Webb conclusorily argues that this case should be reversed based on the
ALJ’s “fail[ure] to properly consider any of the medical evidence in the administrative
record,” by “substitut[ing] his own judgment for that of a physician,” and for failing in
his “duty to fully and fairly develop the record.” (Doc. 10 at 9–10).5 To the extent that
Ms. Webb’s arguments on these issues are based on the ALJ’s “misinterpretation” of
Dr. Saxon’s treatment notes, the arguments are flawed because the ALJ accurately
described, and even directly quoted, the notes of Dr. Saxon, as explained supra. As
such, the ALJ did not improperly substitute his own opinion for that of Dr. Saxon’s, or
of any other doctor in the medical record. After independently reviewing the record in
this case, the court concludes that the ALJ properly considered the existing medical
The court rejects the Commissioner’s argument that Ms. Webb has waived her duty to
develop the record argument because of her failure to elaborate. (Doc. 13 at 5–6). The parties to
Social Security appeals are not even required to file briefs, which highlights the court’s
independent obligation on appeal to scrutinize the record below for error under a de novo review.
See Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (discussing the district court’s
independent “responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial
evidence supports each essential administrative finding”).
evidence, which substantially supports his decision.6 Similarly, the court finds that the
ALJ applied the proper legal standards, and met his duty to fully and fairly develop the
record. For these reasons, his decision is due to be affirmed.
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 3rd day of July, 2012.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
Most significantly, the court observes that the comprehensive Mental Residual
Functional Capacity Assessment of Dr. Leonard (Tr. 227–51) – which the ALJ relied on in
determining Ms. Webb’s RFC – is not challenged by Ms. Webb on this appeal. In his assessment,
Dr. Leonard concluded that Ms. Webb “appears to be able to complete an 8-hour workday,”
given certain limitations, which the ALJ fully adopted in his opinion and properly presented to the
vocational expert. (See Tr. 229). Further, Dr. Leonard concluded that Ms. Webb was “not
significantly limited” or only “moderately limited” in all categories of his vocational assessment.
(Tr. 227–28). Finally, Dr. Leonard summarized Ms. Webb’s medical records and, like Dr. Saxon,
assessed that there was a possibility of “malingering” by Ms. Webb. (Tr. 251) (“[Ms. Webb] . . .
may have been malingering psychosis and mental slowness.”).
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