Bowen v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 05/31/2013. (MSN)
2013 May-31 AM 10:02
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
SONYA LYN BOWEN,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
The plaintiff, Sonya Lyn Bowen, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her
application for a period of disability, Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Bowen 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), 1383(c)(3).
Ms. Bowen was thirty-six years old at the time of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision. She has a high school education and completed one year
of community college. (Tr. at 45.) Her past work experiences include employment as
Page 1 of 14
a veterinary assistant, a data entry clerk, and a parking lot attendant. (Tr. at 67-68.)
Ms. Bowen claims that she became disabled on May 30, 2007, due to depression,
anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, personality disorder, and bipolar
disorder. (Tr. at 46, 178.)
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
Page 2 of 14
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
will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. 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. Bowen
meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was
insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 17.) He further determined that Ms.
Bowen has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her
Page 3 of 14
disability. (Tr. at 24.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s depression, attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, personality disorder, and bipolar disorder are considered
“severe” 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 20 C.F. R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ did not find
Ms. Bowen’s allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the
following residual functional capacity: she can “perform medium work which allows
for work primarily with or around things, not the general public, occasional contact
with co-workers and/or supervisors, and no production work.” (Tr. at 28.)
According to the ALJ, Ms. Bowen is unable to perform any of her past relevant
work, she is a “younger individual,” and she has a “high school education” as those
terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 31.) He determined that because the
plaintiff was “not disabled,” transferability of job skills was not material. (Tr. at 31.)
Even though the ALJ found that Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of medium
work, he used Medical-Vocation Rule 203.28 and 203.29 as a framework for finding
that there are a significant number of unskilled medium jobs in the national economy
that she could perform, such as cleaner, hatchery worker, and linen clerk. (Tr. at 3031.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “was not under a
Page 4 of 14
‘disability,’ as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time through the date of this
decision.” (Tr. at 32.)
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
Page 5 of 14
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
“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. Bowen argues that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed for two reasons.
First, she believes that the ALJ gave improper weight to the various medical opinions
of record. (Doc. 8 at 8.) Second, she believes that the ALJ failed to pose a hypothetical
question to the vocational expert (“VE”) that adequately described her limitations.
(Id. at 12).
Weight Given to Medical Opinions of Record
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not give proper weight to the opinion of Dr.
Stone, her treating psychiatrist (id. at 8), and further that the ALJ erred by failing to
recontact Dr. Stone for clarification about his opinion. (Id. at 10.) Additionally, the
plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly gave substantial weight to the opinions of
Page 6 of 14
Dr. Rogers, an examining psychiatrist, and Dr. Estock, a non-examining psychiatrist.
(Id. at 11.) The Court will address these arguments in order.
A treating psychiatrist’s testimony is entitled to “substantial or considerable
weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d
1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). “Good cause” for not giving a treating psychiatrist
substantial weight exists when “(1) the treating psychiatrist’s opinion was not
bolstered by the evidence; (2) the evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) the
treating psychiatrist’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, 125 F.3d at 1440). If the ALJ finds the evidence, including the treating
psychiatrist’s opinion, insufficient, then he may recontact the treating psychiatrist or
other medical source, among other options. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520b(c)(3). However,
if the ALJ can make a decision based upon the evidence, he is not under an obligation
to recontact the treating psychiatrist. Id; see Osborn v. Barnhart, 194 F. App’x 654, 669
(11th Cir. 2006).
The ALJ showed “good cause” for discounting Dr. Stone’s opinions, stating
the opinions were conclusory and unsupported by the doctor’s own notes and records.
Page 7 of 14
(Tr. at 28.) In an attorney-drafted supplemental questionnaire, Dr. Stone classified all
of Ms. Bowen’s mental impairments as either “marked” or “extreme.” (Tr. at 299300.) The ALJ accurately noted that Dr. Stone did not provide any explanations or
support for these classifications. (Tr. at 28.) They were merely conclusory statements.
Additionally, as the ALJ articulated, none of Dr. Stone’s prior treatment notes
indicate a “marked” or “extreme” impairment. (Tr. at 277-306.) Although Dr.
Stone’s treatment notes document Plaintiff’s history of depression with suicidal
thoughts, crying spells, anger, manic times, poor sleep, and anxiety, his descriptions
of Plaintiff’s mental limitations never rise to the level of “marked” or “extreme” or
describe her as disabled. (Id.) In fact, Dr. Stone’s most recent assessment, a Psychiatry
Progress Note dated April 28, 2010, identifies Plaintiff as “stable.” (Tr. at 305.) In the
same assessment, Dr. Stone indicated that Plaintiff’s recent depression was due
primarily to someone stealing her medications, and Dr. Stone’s treatment simply
consisted of continuing her medications. (Id.) As the ALJ correctly noted, these
inconsistencies between Dr. Stone’s treatment notes and his opinion provide good
cause for giving Dr. Stone’s medical opinion less weight. In light of the record, the
ALJ’s decision that good cause existed is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ should have recontacted Dr. Stone in order
Page 8 of 14
to clarify his opinions. (Doc. 8 at 10.) An ALJ, however, is only required to recontact
a psychiatrist when there is not enough evidence in the record to make a decision. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520b(c)(3). Plaintiff’s medical history and the opinions of Dr. Rogers
and Dr. Estock, discussed below, provide substantial evidence for the ALJ to make a
decision; therefore, the ALJ did not err by not recontacting Dr. Stone.
Dr. Rogers and Dr. Estock
To determine the weight given to a medical opinion, an ALJ must consider
several factors, including the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, the
evidence presented to support the opinion, the consistency of the opinion with other
evidence, and the specialization of the medical professional. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
See Davis v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 449 F. App’x 828, 832 (11th Cir. 2011) (stating that
the ALJ will give more weight to the medical opinions of a source who has examined
the plaintiff and opinions that are supported by medical signs and findings and are
consistent with the overall “record as a whole”); see also Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d
278, 280 (11th Cir. 1987) (stating that “the opinions of nonexamining, reviewing
physicians . . . when contrary to those of the examining physicians are entitled to little
weight, and standing alone do not constitute substantial evidence”).
The ALJ’s assignment of substantial weight to Dr. Rogers’ opinion was proper.
Page 9 of 14
The ALJ articulated the following considerations in determining the degree of weight
to afford Dr. Rogers’ opinion: 1.) Dr. Rogers was an examining psychiatrist; 2.) Dr.
Rogers supported his opinion with medical signs and findings; and 3.) Dr. Rogers’
opinion accounted for and was consistent with Plaintiff’s overall medical record. (Tr.
at 27-28.) Dr. Rogers examined Plaintiff in February of 2008, reviewed Plaintiff’s
medical history, and conducted a series of tests to determine Plaintiff’s mental status.
(Tr. at 252-56.) Dr. Rogers observed that Plaintiff was well-groomed and spoke
normally. (Tr. at 254.) He also asked Plaintiff to perform certain tasks and answer
certain questions in order to assess her “Sensorium and Cognition.” (Tr. at 254-55.)
The ALJ used his objective observations and the results from the tests and questions
to support his opinion that Plaintiff’s “mental impairment is moderate.” (Tr. at 257.)
Dr. Rogers also stated that he took into account the medical evidence of record
indicating Plaintiff’s mental impairments when making his opinion, and his diagnoses
of depression and fatigue are consistent with previous diagnoses of Plaintiff. (Tr. at
255-56.) Accordingly, there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s decision to
assign substantial weight to Dr. Rogers’ opinion.
The ALJ did not articulate at length his considerations for giving Dr. Estock’s
opinion significant weight. He merely mentioned that his opinions “are supported by
Page 10 of 14
the overall evidence.” (Tr. at 28.) However, the Commissioner emphasizes that as the
State agency psychological consultant, Dr. Estock specializes in conducting disability
evaluations. (Doc. 9 at 10.) Additionally, Dr. Estock supported his evaluations by
citing the same medical signs and findings used by Dr. Rogers, and Dr. Estock’s
opinions are consistent with Plaintiff’s overall medical history. (Tr. at 257-75.) Dr.
Estock did not examine Plaintiff, though, and he only reviewed her records in
formulating his opinion. Although it is an error to reject the opinion of an examining
psychiatrist based only on the opinion of a non-examining psychiatrist, the ALJ did not
rely solely on Dr. Estock’s opinion. (Tr. at 27-28.) The ALJ relied on both Dr.
Rogers’ and Dr. Estock’s opinions in rejecting Dr. Stone’s opinion, and the ALJ noted
that Dr. Rogers’ and Dr. Estock’s opinions are both supported by the evidence. (Id.)
The ALJ could have better articulated his reasons for giving Dr. Estock’s opinion
significant weight. However, because the ALJ also gave substantial weight to Dr.
Rogers’ opinion and because Dr. Estock’s opinion is supported by the evidence, it was
not an error to give Dr. Estock’s opinion significant weight without a lengthy
Sufficiency of Hypothetical Question Posed to the Vocational Expert
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by not explicitly including Plaintiff’s
Page 11 of 14
“moderate to marked” difficulties in social functioning in the hypothetical posed to
the VE. (Doc. 8 at 13.) “In order for a vocational expert’s testimony to constitute
substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question which comprises all
of the claimant’s impairments.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir.
2002). The Eleventh Circuit has held that an ALJ must only explicitly account for
limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace when medical evidence does not
“demonstrate that a claimant can engage in simple, routine tasks or unskilled work
despite limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace.” Winschel v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011). However, this Court has not found any
authority from the Eleventh Circuit holding that an ALJ must account for social
functioning limitations in a like manner. In fact, with respect to social limitations, the
Eleventh Circuit affirmed, in an unpublished opinion, an ALJ who did not explicitly
mention a plaintiff’s moderate social limitation but “took account of [the plaintiff’s]
moderate limitations in social functioning by asking the VE a hypothetical question
that included the restriction that [plaintiff ] was limited to jobs that involved only
occasional interaction with the general public and coworkers.” Washington v. Soc. Sec.
Admin., No. 12-14397, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 906, at *5-6.
The ALJ, in this case, properly accounted for Plaintiff’s “moderate to marked”
Page 12 of 14
limitations in social functioning. (Tr. at 25.) Similar to Washington, where the ALJ’s
hypothetical asked about jobs with limited interaction with the public and coworkers,
the ALJ in this case posed only hypothetical questions that limited the VE to jobs
“primarily . . . around things, not the public” and with “occasional contact . . . with
coworkers.” (Tr. at 68, 71.) Additionally, the ALJ posed hypothetical questions that
limited the vocational expert to jobs with “no contact with co-workers,” although the
ALJ ultimately decided Plaintiff could have “occasional contact with co-workers
and/or supervisors.” (Tr. at 71, 28.) Because the ALJ limited his hypothetical
questions to jobs with limited contact with the public and co-workers, the ALJ
properly accounted for Plaintiff’s “moderate to marked” limitations in social
However, even if moderate limitations in social interaction should be
specifically mentioned in the absence of medical evidence—similar to limitations in
concentration, persistence, and pace—there is medical evidence in the record
demonstrating Plaintiff’s ability to interact with a few co-workers. (Tr. at 261.) The
court in Winschel stated that when medical evidence demonstrates the ability to engage
in some simple routine activity despite a limitation in concentration, persistence, and
pace, the ALJ is not required to explicitly include the limitation. Winschel, 631 F.3d
Page 13 of 14
at 1180. Dr. Estock’s Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment indicated that
Plaintiff could have casual contact with the public and could work with a few familiar
co-workers. (Tr. at 261.) The ALJ properly relied on this medical evidence in limiting
his hypothetical questions to jobs with limited social contact, despite not explicitly
mentioning Plaintiff’s limitations in social interaction.
Upon review of the administrative record and considering Plaintiff’s arguments,
the Court finds the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and
in accord with applicable law. A separate order will be entered.
Done this 31st day of May 2013.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
Page 14 of 14
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?