Lawson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 6/17/2014. (PSM)
2014 Jun-17 AM 08:34
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
SHEILA ANN LAWSON,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Sheila Ann Lawson (“Lawson”) brings this action pursuant to Section
205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of
the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“SSA”). This court finds that the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision which has become the decision of the Commissioner - is supported by substantial
evidence. Therefore, for the reasons elaborated herein, the court will affirm the
decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Lawson filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on July 15,
2009, alleging a disability onset date of September 28, 2007, due to anxiety and
fibromyalgia. (R. 21, 125). After the SSA denied Lawson’s claim, she requested a
hearing before an ALJ. (R. 73-74). The ALJ subsequently denied Lawson’s claim,
(R. 18-28), which became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals
Council refused to grant review. (R. 1-6). Lawson then filed this action for judicial
review pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 1.
II. Standard of Review
The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial
evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker,
672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal
standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Bowen,
792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) mandates that the
Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if supported by ‘substantial
evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district
court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment
for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and
determine if the decision is “reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” See
id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of
evidence; “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Martin, 849 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth,
703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the
court must affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings even if the preponderance of
the evidence is against the Commissioner’s findings. See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529.
While the court acknowledges that judicial review of the ALJ’s findings is limited in
scope, it notes that the review “does not yield automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d
III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to engage
in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairments 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 months.” 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an
impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in
whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer
to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and
five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step
three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (citing 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work
the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v.
Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ initially determined that Lawson
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 15, 2009, and, therefore, met
Step One. (R. 23). Next, the ALJ found that Lawson satisfied Step Two because she
suffered from the severe impairments of “Osteoarthritis, Depression, [and]
Agoraphobia Without Panic” Id. The ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found
that Lawson failed to satisfy Step Three because she “does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed
impairments.” (R. 24). Although the ALJ answered Step Three in the negative,
consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, the ALJ proceeded to Step
Four where he determined that Lawson
has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in
20 CFR 416.967(b) except claimant must never be required to climb a
ladder, rope or scaffold and should only frequently be required to climb
a ramp or stairs, balance, crouch, stoop, kneel, crawl, reach overhead or
otherwise, gross handle or use her fine finger or feel sensation with her
non-dominant left arm, meaning no more than five hours of an eight
hour workday. The claimant should never be exposed to dangerous
equipment or products. It should also be taken into consideration that
the claimant has a moderate limitation in her ability to work with
supervisors, co-workers and the public in interpersonal interaction and
discussion. She is only able to stay on task for two hours and can only
maintain attention to simple, repetitive tasks for two hours at a time.
She is also moderately limited in her ability to understand, remember
and carry out simple instructions, respond appropriately to work
pressures and adapt to changes in routine work settings.
(R. 25). Lastly, in Step Five, the ALJ considered Lawson’s age, education, work
experience,1 and RFC and determined “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy that [Lawson] can perform.” (R. 27). Therefore, the ALJ
found that Lawson “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, since July 15, 2009, the date the application was filed.” (R. 28).
The court now turns to Lawson’s contentions that the ALJ failed to (1)
properly consider the opinions of medical sources; (2) support his RFC assessment
with a medical source opinion; (3) adequately specify the degree of mental limitations
in his RFC assessment; and (4) consider all of Lawson’s impairments. See doc. 9 at
5-10. The court addresses each contention in turn.
As of the date of the ALJ’s decision, Lawson was 51 years old and the ALJ
found she had no past relevant work. (R. 27).
The ALJ properly considered the opinions of medical sources.
Lawson contends the ALJ erred because he did not “report the clinical findings
or even mention the consultative evaluation . . . when neurologist Dr. Victor Sung
found diffuse points of tenderness in her muscles” and “diagnosed diffuse
osteoarthritis of the knee, back and shoulders.” Doc. 9 at 5. Contrary to Lawson’s
contention, although the ALJ did not refer to Dr. Sung by name, he in fact discussed
her examination: “With regard to Claimant’s osteoarthritis, there is documented medical
evidence of osteoarthritic changes in her shoulder and knee joints and the residual
functional capacity finding (RFC) has taken these joint problems into consideration (Exhibit
5F).”2 Consistent with this statement, the ALJ found Lawson had the severe
impairment of osteoarthritis, and included related restrictions in his RFC assessment.
(R. 35, 25). Therefore, Lawson’s contention is unavailing.
Lawson asserts also that the ALJ improperly relied on the physical RFC
assessment completed by a nonmedical single decision maker (SDM). Doc. 9 at 6-7.
However, nowhere in his decision does the ALJ mention the SDM’s RFC, or indicate
that he relied upon it to assess Lawson’s RFC. To the contrary, the ALJ discussed
other medical evidence of record, and stated that his physical RFC findings were
“supported by the available medical evidence showing osteoarthritic changes in
[Lawson’s] shoulder and knee joints.” (R. 26). Significantly, the ALJ’s RFC finding
Exhibit 5F is Dr. Sung’s consultative evaluation.
included limitations in reaching, handling, and fingering, whereas the SDM indicated
no limitations in those areas. (R. 25, 344). Because there is no evidence that the ALJ
relied on the opinion of the SDM, Lawson’s contention is without merit.
Finally, Lawson suggests the ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of
Lawson’s consultative examiner, Dr. Jack Zaremba, because he was hired by
Lawson’s attorney. Doc. 9 at 6. In making this contention, Lawson ignores that the
absence of a treating relationship is a significant factor in assessing the weight, if any,
the ALJ should give to Dr. Zaremba’s opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2)
(“Generally, we give more weight to opinions from your treating sources . . . .”). In
other words, the retention of Dr. Zaremba by Lawson’s counsel is precisely why the
ALJ observed that “since [Dr. Zaremba] was hired by [Lawson’s] attorney, there is no
longitudinal treatment history.” (R. 26). Moreover, the ALJ also gave little weight to
Dr. Zaremba’s opinions because he was “the only physician in the record who gave
the claimant a definitive diagnosis of fibromyalgia or who classified [Lawson’s]
mental status as ‘severe and debilitating.’” (R. 26). Consequently, the ALJ found
that Dr. Zaremba’s “opinions are not consistent with the other physicians in the
record.” See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4) (ALJ must consider whether the doctor’s
opinion is consistent with the record as a whole in assessing its weight); Bloodworth
v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983) (ALJ “may reject the opinion of any
physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.”). Therefore, the ALJ
properly considered Dr. Zarmeba’s opinions and reasonably rejected them.
The ALJ was not required to support his RFC assessment with a medical
Lawson next contends the ALJ had no RFC from a medical source to rely on
in assessing Lawson’s physical RFC. Doc. 9 at 7. However, Lawson overlooks that
the regulations and the law of this circuit do not impose such a requirement. Rather,
the pertinent regulation provides that opinions on issues reserved to the
Commissioner, such as a claimant’s RFC, are not medical opinions:
Opinions on some issues, such as the examples that follow, are not
medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the
Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are
dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). One of the specifically reserved examples is a
Although we consider opinions from medical sources on issues such as .
. . your residual functional capacity . . . the final responsibility for
deciding these issues is reserved to the Commissioner.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2). Consequently, the Eleventh Circuit has
recognized that “the task of determining a claimant’s residual functional capacity and
ability to work is within the province of the ALJ, not of doctors.” Robinson v. Astrue,
365 F. App’x 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010) (unpublished). It has also found an ALJ’s
RFC finding can be supported by substantial evidence even without a medical source
statement in the record. See Green v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F. App’x 915, 922-23
(11th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (rejected the claimant’s argument “that without [the
physician’s] opinion, there [was] nothing in the record” to support the ALJ’s RFC
Here, the ALJ properly relied on the report of Dr. Sung, and other evidence to
assess Lawson’s RFC. Because there was sufficient medical evidence to allow the
ALJ to assess Lawson’s physical RFC and determine whether she was disabled, the
record was complete. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(e). Consequently, no medical source
opinion or other additional development was required, and the ALJ committed no
The ALJ adequately specified the degree of Lawson’s mental limitations in his
Next, relying on the ALJ’s use of the term “moderate” in describing Lawson’s
mental restrictions, which Lawson argues is “applicable only to a consideration of
mental impairments under the PRT [Psychiatric Review Technique],” Lawson asserts
that the ALJ’s RFC finding was “not specific enough to translate to quantifiable
vocational restrictions in terms of frequency or extent.” Doc. 9 at 9. But Lawson
overlooks that the ALJ explained to the VE that when using “moderate in nonexertional matters,” he was using “the Agency definition of a slight, slight limitation
in the area, but the individual’s still able to function satisfactorily.” (R. 55).
Significantly, in responding to the ALJ’s hypothetical question, the VE explained that
“[m]oderate limitations . . . may impact work, but they would not prevent work in and
of themselves.” (R. 56). In addition, Lawson’s counsel had the opportunity to
question the VE as to the meaning of moderate, but failed to do so. Ultimately,
Lawson has not shown that “moderate” has no meaning in the context used by the
ALJ, and it is clear the VE understood the ALJ’s intended meaning. Consequently
Lawson’s contention is without merit, and the ALJ committed no reversible error in
using “moderate” to describe Lawson’s limitations.
Lawson also makes the related argument that 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(c) requires a
more detailed analysis than the PRT. However, a review of the ALJ’s mental RFC
findings shows that he assessed Lawson’s abilities in areas listed in that regulation,
namely “understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions, and in
responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work pressures in a work
setting.” Id. Consequently, the ALJ provided the detailed analysis required when
The ALJ did not err in failing to consider all of Lawson’s impairments.
Finally, Lawson contends that the ALJ failed to consider Lawson’s complete
medical history, which “includ[ed] hypertension, bilateral ankle pain, calluses on
soles bilaterally, hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, status left post [sic] foot fracture in
December 2007 in a boot until March 2008, anemia, fatigue, hepatic cyst, [and]
cervical lymphadenopathy.” Doc. 9 at 9 (citations to record omitted). Unfortunately,
Lawson failed to identify any limitations caused by these medical conditions either at
the time of her application for disability, (R. 125), or at her ALJ hearing. (R. 42-59).
Therefore, the ALJ was under no obligation to investigate or consider limitations
caused by those conditions. Street v. Barnhart, 133 F. App’x 621, 627 (11th Cir.
2005) (unpublished) (observing that an ALJ is not required to investigate allegations
“not presented at the time of the application for benefits and not offered at the hearing
as a basis for disability”) (quoting Pena v. Chater, 76 F.3d 906, 909 (8th Cir. 1996)).
Because Lawson fails to point to any limitations caused by these conditions, and did
not allege any restrictions from them at the administrative level, the ALJ committed
no error in failing to discuss the conditions in his decision.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Lawson is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ applied
proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the Commissioner’s
final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance with the memorandum
of decision will be entered.
DONE this 17th day of June, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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?