Norris v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 6/26/12. (KGE, )
2012 Jun-26 AM 10:34
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
LISA ANN NORRIS,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
The plaintiff, Lisa Ann Norris, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner
of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).
Ms. Norris timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the
decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
Ms. Norris was fifty-one years old at the time of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision, and she has an eleventh grade education. (Tr. at 69.)
Her past work experiences include employment as a mail clerk, overnight stocker,
production worker, and cashier. (Tr. at 23-34.) Ms. Norris claims that she became
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disabled on August 1, 2006, due to low back pain, hypertension, and
schizophrenia/bipolar disorder (Tr. at 69.)
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.
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 Ms. Norris
meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB, and was
insured through the date of this decision. (Tr. at 16.) He further determined that Ms.
Norris has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her
disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s depressive disorder, anxiety
disorder, cannabis abuse, and cocaine abuse are considered more than minimal
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work-related limitations based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.)
However, he found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of
the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. (Tr. at 18.) The
ALJ did not find Ms. Norris’s allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that
she has the following residual functional capacity: full range of work at all exertion
levels and has no more than moderate limitations in her ability to perform basic mental
requirements. (Tr. at 19.)
According to the ALJ, Ms. Norris is able to perform some of her past relevant
work, she is a “younger individual,” and she has “at least the equivalent of a high
school education” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 23.) He
determined that Plaintiff has “no transferable skills from any past relevant work
and/or transferability of skills is not an issue in this case.” (Id.) The ALJ found that
Ms. Norris has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all
exertion levels and has no more than moderate limitations in her ability to perform the
basic mental work requirements. (Tr. at 19.) The ALJ concluded his findings by
stating that Plaintiff “was not under a ‘disability,’ as defined in the Social Security
Act, at any time through the date of this decision.” (Id.)
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Standard of Review
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
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“despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court
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).
Ms. Norris alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for
two reasons. First, she believes the ALJ used an improper standard when assigning
weight to Plaintiff’s examining psychologist, Dr. Rogers. (Doc. 8 at 13.) Second, she
claims that the ALJ did not give adequate weight to Dr. Rogers as compared to
Plaintiff’s other physicians. (Doc. 8 at 13.)
The ALJ may discount the opinion of a physician, even a treating physician, for
good cause. “Good cause” exists for an ALJ to give a physician’s opinion no
substantial weight when the: “(1) treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the
evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating physician’s
opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.”
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F. 3d 1232, 1241 (11th Cir. 2004) citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125
F. 3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).
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The ALJ “may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports
a contrary conclusion,” however, the ALJ is “required to state with particularity the
weight he gives to different medical opinions and the reasons why.” McCloud v.
Barnhart, 166 Fed. Appx. 410, 418-419 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Blooksworth v. Heckler,
703 F. 2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983). Moreover, the opinion of 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)). The weight accorded to
a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity of claimant’s impairments
depends, among other things, upon the examining and treating relationship the
medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to
support the opinion, how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, and the
specialty of the medical source. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d). When the ALJ gives little
weight to a physician’s opinion, he must give his reasons and while “particular
phrases or formulations” do not have to be cited in an ALJ’s credibility determination,
it cannot be a “broad rejection” which is “not enough to enable [this Court] to
conclude that [the ALJ] considered her [Plaintiff’s] medical condition as a whole.”
Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1555, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995)).
The ALJ did not believe Plaintiff was “completely forthright during [Dr.
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Rogers’] evaluation” and stated specific reasons in his report for finding the Plaintiff
was not credible. (Tr. at 18-23.) The ALJ gave no significant weight to Dr. Rogers’
opinion for two reasons: (1) Plaintiff’s statements to Dr. Rogers were not reliable
because they were drastically different as compared to previous statements the
Plaintiff made to past physicians and (2) Dr. Rogers’ opinion is not supported by any
additional evidence. (Tr. at 18.) The ALJ had good cause to afford the opinion of Dr.
Rogers no significant weight.
Plaintiff had her first psychological consultative examination (CE) with Dr.
Beth on November 21, 2006. (Tr. at 172-77.) Dr. Beth concluded Plaintiff had a mild
to moderate impairment in her ability to cooperate with others, as well as mild
limitations in social functioning, paying attention, concentration, persistence, and
pace. (Tr. 176-77.) Her GAF score was 55, suggesting moderate difficulty in
functioning. At Dr. Beth’s suggestion, Plaintiff saw Dr. Leonard in December 2006,
to get a psychiatric referral. (Tr. at 176.) Dr. Leonard concluded in the Functional
Capacity Assessment that the Plaintiff could perform work on a normal schedule with
standard breaks. (Tr. 200.) At no point did any treating physician suggest the plaintiff
had any work-related limitations. (Tr. at 22-23.)
Because the plaintiff’s last CE was more than two years old, Plaintiff’s attorney
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sent Plaintiff to Dr. Rogers on January 15, 2009, for her second psychological CE.
(Doc. 8 at 7.) Dr. Rogers found a range of difficulties that the Plaintiff did not have
previously, such as: an inability to maintain social functioning; difficulty in
concentrating; an inability to respond under supervised labor; memory difficulties;
and limitations in repetitive work. (Tr. at 22.) Dr. Rogers assigned the plaintiff a GAF
score of 48, and, although he saw the plaintiff only once, stated that the plaintiff could
not have had a higher score than 50 in the last twelve months. (Tr. at 208.)
The Plaintiff gave several statements to Dr. Rogers that were inconsistent with
both the medical record and her previous statements. (Tr. at 172-77, 178-82, 184-97,
203-11.) Dr. Rogers’ opinions were based primarily on statements made by the
plaintiff, which were very different from previous statements, such as the physical
pain the plaintiff was experiencing, her drug use, her arrest record, hallucinations, and
the length of her marriage, among other things. (Tr. at 20-21.)
For instance, Plaintiff told Dr. Rogers she has never left the state nor been
arrested, whereas she told Dr. Beth she lived in California for several years and spent
90 days incarcerated. (Tr. at 200-04, 174.) Plaintiff told Dr. Rogers she goes into
“rages” and has anger problems, while in Dr. Beth’s report the plaintiff denied any
rage problem. (Tr. at 203-04, 175.) Furthermore, her primary care physician, Dr.
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Record, has nothing on file to suggest Plaintiff goes into rages or has anger problems.
(Tr. at 21.) She told Dr. Rogers she was married for six months. (Tr. at 204.) The
same marriage lasted only a month according to Plaintiff’s statements to Dr. Beth.
(Tr. at 174.)
Given the inconsistencies in Plaintiff’s statements, the ALJ focused on evidence
that was corroborated by the record. (Tr. at 22.) The opinion of Dr. Rogers was
formed primarily from the plaintiff’s inconsistent statements. (Tr. at 22.) Therefore,
the ALJ gave Dr. Rogers’ report no significant weight. (Tr. at 22.) After considering
the plaintiff’s statements, medical records, and the opinions of other doctors, the ALJ
found Dr. Beth’s opinions to be more consistent with the record as a whole. (Tr. at
23.) Given the differences in several answers provided to Dr. Rogers by the plaintiff
when compared to the rest of the record, the ALJ had good cause to give no significant
weight to the opinion of Dr. Rogers and the GAF score that derived from the
plaintiff’s statements. (Tr. at 22.)
The most notable change in the medical record between the two CEs was that
the plaintiff relapsed into cocaine abuse, and the ALJ took note of this. (Tr. at 21.) If
a claimant is disabled and drug or alcohol abuse is a material factor contributing to the
disability, she is not entitled to benefits based on this consideration. 20 C.F.R.
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§ 404.1535, § 416.935 (2011).
In August 2007, Plaintiff tested positive for cocaine, which caused Dr. Record
to discontinue prescribing Lortab to the Plaintiff. (Tr. at 218.) In December of 2008,
the ER made note of recent cocaine use. (Tr. 216.) In January 2009, Plaintiff told Dr.
Rogers she had last used cocaine one week before their meeting and had last used
marijuana two to three weeks earlier. (Tr. at 205.) The ALJ considered these facts
when assessing the Plaintiff’s claims. (Tr. at 22.)
The ALJ used the correct standard of “good cause” to determine whether to
disregard Dr. Rogers’ January 2009 assessment of Plaintiff’s condition, and the ALJ
had good cause to afford little weight to Dr. Rogers 2009 assessment of Plaintiff’s
condition. See Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159-60; see also Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240-41.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Ms. Norris’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 26th day of June 2012.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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