Seals v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 6/26/2014. (AVC)
2014 Jun-26 AM 10:19
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
KATRINA WILLIAMS SEALS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Katrina Williams Seals (“Seals”) 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
Seals filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and for
Title XVI Supplemental Security Income with a protective filing date of April 13,
2009, alleging a disability onset date of February 4, 2009, due to problems caused
by morbid obesity and depression.1 (R. 135, 127). After the SSA denied Seals’
claim, she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 81-82). The ALJ subsequently
denied Seals’ claim, (R. 20-29), which became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R. 1-6). Seals
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.
Seals is only challenging here the ALJ’s findings with respect to her
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 at 701.
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 found that Seals had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 4, 2009, and, therefore, met
Step One. (R. 24). Next, the ALJ found that Seals satisfied Step Two because she
suffered from the severe impairments of “morbid obesity and depression.” Id. The
ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that Seals 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.” Id. 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 Seals
has the residual functional capacity [“RFC”] to perform sedentary
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except
she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; or crawl. She can
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb ramps or stairs.
She should avoid extreme cold and heat, and all hazards such as
unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. She would be
moderately limited in her ability understanding, remembering, and
carrying out detailed instructions; maintain attention and
concentration for extended periods; interact appropriately with the
general-public; accept instructions and respond appropriately to
criticism from supervisors; and responding appropriately to changes in
the work setting. She can learn and remember simple work routines.
She can understand, remember, and carryout simple instructions. She
can tolerate ordinary work pressures, but needs to avoid extreme work
pressures. Contact with the public should be casual, and she can
adapt to infrequent, well explained changes.
(R. 26). In light of her RFC, the ALJ held that Seals “is unable to perform any past
relevant work.”2 (R. 28). Lastly, in Step Five, the ALJ considered Seals’ age,
education, work experience, and RFC and determined “there are jobs that exist in
As of the date of the ALJ’s decision, Seals was 34 years old with a limited
education, and had past relevant work that included medium semi-skilled work as a
certified nursing assistant, and light work as a unit clerk. (R. 28, 61-62).
significant numbers in the national economy [Seals] can perform.” Id. Therefore, the
ALJ found that Seals “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from February 4, 2009, through the date of this decision.” Id..
The court now turns to Seals’ contentions that the ALJ erred because he did not
(1) properly assess her obesity in combination with her other impairments; (2) support
his RFC assessment with a medical source opinion; and (3) properly develop the
See doc. 9 at 6-12. The court addresses each contention in turn.
The ALJ properly considered Seals’ obesity and other impairments in
Seals asserts that it was “particularly important” for the ALJ to properly analyze
the effect of Seals’ “obesity and all of her physical problems,” and contends the ALJ
“did not make any findings on what these physical problems were in terms of severe,
non severe or even medically determinable impairments.” Doc. 9 at 6. Unfortunately
for Seals, the record belies her contentions. In fact, the ALJ specifically found that
“[a] review of all the available medical evidence indicates that all of the claimant’s
physical problems are caused by her obesity,” (R. 26), which he held was a severe
impairment. (R. 24). The ALJ also stated that he “evaluated [Seals’] morbid obesity
and accompanying impairments in accordance with Social Security Ruling [SSR] 0201p,” and explained that the “ruling provides that I must assess the effect that morbid
obesity has on [Seals’] ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical
activity within the work environment.” (R. 26-27) (emphasis added). These
statements show the ALJ followed the ruling when he considered Seals’ obesity and
other impairments. See SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 34686281, *6 (S.S.A.) (explaining that
“[t]he combined effects of obesity with other impairments may be greater than might
be expected without obesity,” and that “[a]n assessment should also be made of the
effect obesity has upon the individual’s ability to perform routine movement and
necessary physical activity within the work environment”). In other words, contrary to
Seals’ contention, the ALJ properly considered Seals’ obesity in combination with her
other impairments under SSR 02-1p, and found that together they would not prevent
Seals from performing a reduced range of sedentary work.
In performing the assessment required by SSR 02-1p, the ALJ acknowledged
Seals’ allegations of “swelling, chest pain and lower back pain,” but found her
allegations were not supported by the evidence. (R. 26). In support of this finding,
with respect to Seals’ alleged chest pain, the ALJ noted that “treating source records
during the relevant period are devoid of any cardiac diagnosis,” and also gave
significant weight to the findings of Dr. David Brower, the consultative examiner,
who found a regular heart rate and rhythm, normal S1 and S2, and no extra sounds or
murmurs on cardiovascular exam. (R. 26-27, 251). Next, regarding Seals’ alleged
physical limitations, the ALJ observed that Dr. Brower’s examination also showed
Seals had a normal gait, normal muscle bulk and tone, and that her strength was 5/5 in
the upper and lower extremities. (R. 27, 251-52). In conclusion, the ALJ stated that
the “findings of the above doctors reveal that the claimant is capable of functioning at
a sedentary standard consistent with the claimant’s residual functional capacity.” (R.
Seals disagrees with the ALJ’s findings, contending that “[t]here were many
indications that [Seals] would not be able to sustain work on a regular and continuing
basis.” Doc. 9 at 8. To support her contention, Seals cites first to her hospital records
of June 2006 that noted “her dyspnea was as a result of her underlying obesity (as well
as humidity).” Id. Unfortunately for Seals, the record shows also that she was able to
continue working until October 2008, when she testified that she stopped working
when her hospital employer closed its operations. (R. 46). Seals’ continued
employment establishes that the dyspnea she experienced in 2006 was not disabling.
Seals asserts next that she is disabled because Dr. Brower’s examination found
“2+ pitting edema in the lower extremities and the upper extremities were edematous
as well,” and “diagnosed [her with] morbid obesity with functional limitations.” Doc.
9 at 8-9. However, Dr. Brower did not quantify the extent of the functional
limitations, and as the ALJ noted, Dr. Brower found that Seals had a normal gait,
normal muscle bulk, normal tone, and 5/5 strength in the upper and lower extremities.
(R. 251-53). Moreover, Seals failed to direct the court to medical evidence that
established that her edema caused physical limitations that would prevent her from
performing the reduced range of sedentary work reflected in the ALJ’s RFC
assessment. Without such evidence, the existence of an impairment is insufficient
because “the mere existence of . . . impairments does not reveal the extent to which
they limit [the claimant’s] ability to work or undermine the ALJ’s determination in that
regard.” See Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1213 n.6 (11th Cir. 2005). As the
case law states clearly, “the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled,
and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.”
Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003); see also 20 C.F.R. §
416.912(c) (“You must provide evidence . . . showing how your impairment(s) affects
your functioning during the time you say that you are disabled . . . .”). Because Seals
failed to meet this burden by showing her obesity causes limitations in her physical or
mental functioning greater than those found by the ALJ, the court finds that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s findings and there is no reversible error.
The ALJ was not required to support his RFC assessment with a medical
Seals’ next contention is that the ALJ erred because his RFC is not based on a
medical source opinion (MSO). Doc. 9 at 9-12. Although Seals acknowledges there is
no express requirement for an RFC assessment from a medical source, she argues that
one is required as a practical matter to avoid an ALJ substituting his judgment for that
of a physician. Doc. 9 at 10. Unfortunately for Seals, 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
claimant’s RFC: “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. 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 assessment). Here, the ALJ properly relied on evidence from Dr.
Brower and treating sources to assess Seals’ RFC. (R. 26-27). Because there was
sufficient medical evidence to allow the ALJ to assess Seals’ RFC and determine
whether she was disabled, the record was complete. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(e).
Consequently, no medical source opinion was required, and the ALJ committed no
The ALJ did not fail to properly develop the record.
Seals final contention is that the ALJ failed to properly develop the record
because he should have obtained an MSO by recontacting Dr. Brower, ordering
another consultative exam, or utilizing a medical expert. Doc. 9 at 11. However,
before remanding for further development of the record, a reviewing court must
consider “whether the record reveals evidentiary gaps which result in unfairness or
‘clear prejudice.’” Smith v. Schweiker, 677 F.2d 826, 830 (11th Cir.1982) (quoting
Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 413 (5th Cir. Unit A July 1981). Therefore,
“although the ALJ has a duty to develop a full and fair record, there must be a showing
of prejudice before [a reviewing court] will remand for further development of the
record.” Robinson v. Astrue, 365 F. App’x 993, 995 (11th Cir. 2010) (unpublished)
(citing Brown v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 931, 935 (11th Cir. 1995). Unfortunately Seals has
not identified any gaps in the evidence that cause unfairness or prejudice in the absence
of a second consultative examination or testimony from a medical expert, and has not
shown that Dr. Brower’s examination was incomplete because of the lack of an MSO.
In fact, Seals would have difficulty making such a showing because the regulations
provide that “the absence of such a statement in a consultative examination report will
not make the report incomplete.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1519n(c)(6), 416.919n(c)(6).
Ultimately, to the extent there was a deficiency in the evidence, it resulted from Seals’
failure to satisfy her burden of showing how her impairments affected her functioning.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(c); Ellison, 355 F.3d at 1276. Therefore, Seals has not
demonstrated the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to develop the record by
obtaining an MSO.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Seals 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 26th day of June, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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