Wooley v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DISMISSING CASE that the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED and costs are taxed against claimant; as more fully set out in order. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 11/8/2012. (AHI)
2012 Nov-08 AM 10:56
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner, Social Security
Case No. CV-12-S-0575-S
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Claimant, Dwight Wooley, commenced this action on February 16, 2012,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of
the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”),
and thereby denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance, and
supplemental security income benefits.
The court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v.
Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253
(11th Cir. 1983).
Claimant contends that the Commissioner’s decision is neither supported by
substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically,
claimant asserts that the ALJ improperly substituted his medical judgment for that of
claimant’s treating physicians, improperly determined claimant’s residual functional
capacity, and improperly evaluated claimant’s subjective complaints of pain and other
symptoms. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that these contentions lack
merit, and that the Commissioner’s ruling is due to be affirmed.
Claimant first argues that the ALJ erred by substituting his own medical
judgment for that of claimant’s treating physicians. The opinion of a treating
physician “must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is
shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir.
2004) (internal citations omitted). Good cause exists when “(1) [the] treating
physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported
a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or
inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.” Id. Additionally, the ALJ is not
required to accept a conclusory statement from a medical source, even a treating
source, that a claimant is unable to work, because the decision whether a claimant is
disabled is not a medical opinion, but is a decision “reserved to the Commissioner.”
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e).
Social Security regulations also provide that, in considering what weight to
give any medical opinion (regardless of whether it is from a treating or non-treating
physician), the Commissioner should evaluate: the extent of the examining or
treating relationship between the doctor and patient; whether the doctor’s opinion can
be supported by medical signs and laboratory findings; whether the opinion is
consistent with the record as a whole; the doctor’s specialization; and other factors.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). See also Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075
(11th Cir. 1986) (“The weight afforded a physician’s conclusory statements depends
upon the extent to which they are supported by clinical or laboratory findings and are
consistent with other evidence as to claimant’s impairments.”).
Dr. Mike Moates, claimant’s treating physician at the Department of Veterans
Affairs (“VA”) Medical Center, drafted a “To Whom it May Concern” letter on
September 15, 2010, stating:
I have been involved in the care of Mr. Dwight Wooley at the
Birmingham VA Medical Center, and I treat him for the following
Gouty arthritis of knees and feet
Degenerative arthritis of the back
Neuropathic pain in leg related to back arthritis.
Due to pain in the back and knees, he has been unable to return to
work since 2009. He is on several medications for the above problems.
In addition, he is undergoing regular physical therapy to improve his
Please take this under advisement when considering him for any
form of disability compensation.1
This letter appears to have been created in response to a letter claimant received from
Alabama Power, his utility provider, on September 3, 210. Alabama Power informed
claimant that it needed additional certification of his right to continued receipt of a
“Life Support Equipment designation” at his residence. The power company directed
claimant to complete an application form and a medical release, and informed him
that it would contact his treating physician to obtain a certification signature.2
The ALJ acknowledged Dr. Moates’s letter, but afforded it only little weight
for three reasons. First, the ALJ correctly pointed out that the decision whether
claimant retained the ability to work is reserved to the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R.
Second, the ALJ appropriately noted that Dr. Moates’s letter
apparently was directed to a utility provider as part of claimant’s attempt to renew his
“Life Support Equipment” status. There is no explanation of how Alabama Power
decides to grant Life Support Equipment status, and no indication in the record that,
whatever the process entails, it has any bearing on the determination of claimant’s
disability status. Third, the ALJ found that Dr. Moates’ statements regarding
claimant’s disability were inconsistent with his own findings and records. All of
those were legitimate reasons for assigning less weight to Dr. Moates’s opinion, and
the ALJ’s findings were supported by substantial evidence. Furthermore, contrary to
claimant’s assertion, the ALJ did not ignore large portions of Dr. Moates’s records.
To the contrary, the ALJ thoroughly discussed all of Dr. Moates’s records, as well as
all of the other medical evidence in the record.
Claimant also asserts that the ALJ substituted his own opinions for those of the
treating physicians because he rejected Dr. Moates’s statements about claimant’s
inability to work even though there was no medical evidence in the record to
contradict it. That assertion is unfounded, because, as the ALJ stated, it was Dr.
Moates’s own records that contradicted his conclusory statement about claimant’s
inability to work.
Residual Functional Capacity
Claimant next asserts that the ALJ improperly determined his residual
functional capacity. Claimant’s argument in this regard is essentially a continuation
of the argument addressed in the first section. Claimant asserts that, because the ALJ
improperly rejected Dr. Moates’ statement that he is unable to work, there was no
substantial evidence remaining in the record to support the ALJ’s residual functional
capacity finding. Because this court has already found that the ALJ did not err in
rejecting Dr. Moates’s opinion, claimant’s argument is not persuasive.
Claimant also asserts that the ALJ’s RFC finding was incomplete because,
when posing the hypothetical question to the vocational expert (“VE”) during the
administrative hearing, the ALJ did not mention claimant’s headaches, fatigue,
parasthesia in the upper and lower extremities, or obesity. While it is true that the
ALJ’s hypothetical question to the VE should encompass all of the claimant’s
impairments, see Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229 (11th Cir. 1999), it is not
necessary that the ALJ specifically mention each medical condition or symptom from
which the claimant suffers. Instead, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question that
takes into account the functional effect of each the claimant’s impairments. Here, the
ALJ’s limitations of light work; standing, walking, and sitting for only two hours at
a time; only occasionally bending, climbing, and stooping; no pushing and pulling
with the lower extremities; no driving or working at unprotected heights; and working
in a temperature-controlled environment account for the conditions alleged by
The court also is not persuaded by claimant’s assertion that the ALJ failed to
fully develop the record because he did not obtain an additional residual functional
capacity evaluation from one of claimant’s physicians or from a consultative
examiner. It is true that the ALJ
has an obligation to develop a full and fair record, even if the claimant
is represented by counsel. Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735
(11th Cir. 1981). The ALJ is not required to seek additional
independent expert medical testimony before making a disability
determination if the record is sufficient and additional expert testimony
is not necessary for an informed decision. Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d
1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 1999) (holding the record, which included the
opinion of several physicians, was sufficient for the ALJ to arrive at a
decision); Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1209-10 (11th Cir. 1988)
(holding the ALJ must order a consultative exam when it is necessary
for an informed decision).
Nation v. Barnhart, 153 F. App’x 597, 598 (11th Cir. 2005) (emphasis supplied).
Furthermore, claimant bears the ultimate burden of producing evidence to support his
disability claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003)
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.912(a), (c)). The court concludes that the record in this case
was sufficient, even absent any additional functional capacity evaluations from
treating or examining sources, for the ALJ to arrive at an informed decision. Indeed,
the record was ample, consisting of more than 700 pages medical records, and the
ALJ thoroughly reviewed and summarized all of that evidence.
Finally, claimant asserts that, given
the nature of [his] underlying impairments, including obstructive sleep
apnea syndrome, chronic insomnia, and the fact that he takes sixteen
different prescription medications, including narcotic analgesics, and
given his extensive testimony of his propensity to fall asleep
unexpectedly while sitting, it is inconceivable that these conditions and
the fatigue and mental confusion associated therewith have no effect
whatsoever on his ability to perform non-exertional work-related
functions. Therefore, it is obvious that the ALJ’s RFC determination in
this case is fatally flawed. For this reason as well, this case should be
This argument also fails. While it cannot be disputed that claimant suffers from a
number of medical conditions, the mere existence of those conditions is not sufficient
to support a finding of disability. Instead, the relevant consideration is the effect of
claimant’s impairment, or combination of impairments, on his ability to perform
substantial gainful work activities. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505 (defining a disability
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
12 months”). See also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987) (“The [Social
Security] Act ‘defines “disability” in terms of the effect a physical or mental
impairment has on a person’s ability to function in the workplace.’”) (quoting Heckler
v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 459-60 (1983)). Moreover, the ALJ did not find that
claimant’s medical conditions had “no effect whatsoever” on his ability to do work.
Instead, the ALJ took all of claimant’s conditions into consideration when
determining that claimant was able to perform a limited range of light work.
In summary, this court finds that the ALJ’s residual functional capacity finding
Doc. no. 8 (claimant’s brief), at 18.
was supported by substantial evidence. None of claimant’s arguments to the contrary
Claimant also asserts that the ALJ improperly considered his subjective
complaints of pain, fatigue, headaches, drowsiness, and mental confusion. To
demonstrate that pain or another subjective symptom renders him disabled, claimant
must “produce ‘evidence of an underlying medical condition and (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 severity
that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.’” Edwards v.
Sullivan, 937 F. 2d 580, 584 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d
1551, 1553 (11th Cir. 1986)). “After considering a claimant’s complaints of pain, the
ALJ may reject them as not creditable, and that determination will be reviewed for
substantial evidence.” Marbury v. Sullivan, 957 F.2d 837, 839 (11th Cir. 1992) (citing
Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 517 (11th Cir. 1984)). If an ALJ discredits
subjective testimony on pain, “he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons.”
Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Jones v. Bowen, 810
F.2d 1001, 1004 (11th Cir. 1986); MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1054 (11th
The ALJ applied this standard in drafting his administrative opinion, stating
although the evidence establishes underlying medical conditions capable
of producing some pain and limitations, substantial evidence does not
confirm disabling pain or other limitations arising from the claimant’s
alleged impairments and the claimant’s alleged inability to perform all
substantial gainful activities is simply not corroborated by the evidence
of record. Giving the claimant the benefit of the doubt, the undersigned
finds no reason that the claimant cannot perform work activity as
defined in the residual functional capacity.4
The ALJ also stated that “claimant’s medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to cause some pain, anxiety and other limitations, however,
the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of
these symptoms are not fully credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the
above residual functional capacity assessment.”5 To support these conclusions, the
ALJ reasoned that “the claimant simply alleges a greater degree of disability than the
overall medical evidence can substantiate.”6 He noted that claimant’s medical records
did not consistently reveal complaints of pain at the severe level, and that recent
records indicated that claimant’s pain was only moderate. Moreover, claimant’s
physicians encouraged him to participate in physical therapy and other physical
activity despite his pain, and claimant himself reported that he feels much better when
he is active. The ALJ also relied upon the effectiveness of pain medication and the
lack of objective medical or clinical findings in the record to support claimant’s
allegations.7 All of these were proper considerations for the ALJ to take into account
when evaluating the credibility of claimant’s subjective complaints, and the court
concludes that the ALJ’s decisions were supported by substantial evidence.
Conclusion and Order
In summary, the court concludes the ALJ’s decision was based upon substantial
evidence and in accordance with applicable legal standards. Accordingly, the
decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Costs are taxed against claimant. The
Clerk is directed to close this file.
DONE this 8th day of November, 2012.
United States District Judge
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