Barnes v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge John E Ott on 4/1/2014. (PSM)
2014 Apr-01 AM 09:10
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
TASHA EVETTEA BARNES,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
Case No. 2:12-cv-02849-JEO
Plaintiff Tasha Barnes brings this action seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision
of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying
her application for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1).1 The
case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court’s
general order of reference dated January 14, 2013. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of
this court for disposition of the matter. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), FED. R. CIV. P. 73(a). This court has
carefully considered the record, and for the reasons stated below, finds that the decision of the
Commissioner is due to be affirmed.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on May 4, 2010, alleging disability beginning June 23,
2009. (R. 142).2 Her claim was denied initially. (Id.) Thereafter, she requested a hearing before
References herein to “Doc(s). __” are to the document numbers assigned by the Clerk of the Court to the
pleadings, motions, and other materials in the court file, as reflected on the docket sheet in the court’s Case
Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system.
Citations to (R. ___) are to the page of the administrative record, which is encompassed within Docs. 5-1
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on July 20, 2011. (R. 38). At the hearing,
Plaintiff, represented by an attorney, testified, as did Vocational Expert (“VE”) Deborah Civils.
(Id.) Following the hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 19-37). He also found that she had a residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) for light work with limitations for the period at issue. (R. 28). In light of these
findings, the ALJ issued a decision on August 12, 2011, denying Plaintiff’s claim for DIB. (Id. at
Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision and submitted additional
evidence in the form of a brief. (R. 5). The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff’s request for review.
(R. 1). Therefore, the ALJ’s decision represents the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1).
Plaintiff thereafter timely filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asserting that
the findings of the Commissioner are not contrary to law and the decision of the ALJ is not based
upon substantial evidence. (Doc. 1 at 2).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court’s role is a narrow one:
“Our review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial
evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were
applied.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847
F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions
of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court “may not
decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
[Commissioner], rather [it] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached
is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th
Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)) (internal
quotations and other citation omitted). “The Commissioner’s factual findings are conclusive if
supported by substantial evidence.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1221 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d
1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990); Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987)). “Substantial
evidence” is “more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept
as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178
(11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citations omitted). As just noted, conclusions of law made
by the Commissioner are reviewed de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. “No ... presumption of
validity attaches to the [Commissioner’s] conclusions of law.” Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387,
1389 (11th Cir. 1982).
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 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 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), 416.920(a)-(f). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:
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 economy.
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). The Commissioner
must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.
At the time of the ALJ’s decision, Plaintiff was thirty-one years old. She was a high school
graduate with some college. (R. 56). She experienced difficulty working after she was injured while
lifting a patient in 2004. (R. 45). Despite increasing pain, she continued working until 2009. (Id.)
At her hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff described her pain as a sharp, numbing pain that
burns. (R. 46). She further described it as constant and radiating down her hip and leg. (Id.) She
is on pain medication, including Lortab, Neurotin, and Tylenol.
According to Plaintiff, she cannot stand or walk for more than about 15 minutes without
having to rest. (R. 47). She states that she can sit for about an hour, but was limited in her ability
to climb stairs, bend or stoop. (R. 47-48). She also indicated that she is in need of surgery due to
a “disk laying on the nerve,” but she is unable to afford the procedure. (R. 50).
In pertinent part, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the “severe” physical impairment
of low back pain. (R. 25). He also diagnosed her as having “non-severe” impairments of
asthma, migraines (headaches), hypertension, and an ovarian cyst. (R. 25-27). He also
noted that she suffers from obesity. (R. 27). Despite fining these impairments “non-severe,”
he considered them in determining Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (Id.)
He further found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except that she could only
occasionally bend and stoop, but could not climb; she needed to work in a temperaturecontrolled environment; she could not drive; and, she could occasionally push and/or pull
with her upper extremities. (R. 28). Next, he found she could perform past relevant work
as either a retail or fast food cashier. (R. 31). Lastly, he found that she was “not disabled”
under the Social Security regulations. (R. 32).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in that (1) his decision contains a material
inconsistency, (2) he failed to correctly apply the three-part pain standard, and (3) there is
“absolutely no support for the ... RFC assessment as the record is devoid of any RFC
assessments from any physician....” (Doc. 10 at 5).
As to the first matter, Plaintiff argues that the decision should be reversed or, in the
alternative, remanded because the finding of the ALJ that “magnetic resonance imaging on
August 16, 2010, show[s] right side disc herniation at L5/S1with no thecal sac or nerve root
compression and no spinal or frontal stenosis” is materially inconsistent with the August 16,
2010 MRI report, which states that Plaintiff’s MRI shows
[t]here is a broad-based disc bulge with a right sided herniation that
compresses the right side of the thecal sac and the right lateral recess. No
associated foraminal stenosis is present. There is disc space narrowing and
disc desiccation with reactive bone marrow changes.
(Doc 10 at 5-6) (citing R. 260)). The report goes on to state that “[t]he other discs are
normal. There is no spinal or frontal stenosis elsewhere. No thecal sac or nerve root
compression is present. [sic] Elsewhere.” (Id.) It concludes, with the “impression” of
degenerative disc changes with a broad-based bulge and a right sided disc herniation at L5S1.” (Id.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s failure to appreciate that the MRI revealed nerve
root compression necessitates additional review by the ALJ because it must be considered
in determining whether Plaintiff’s “pain meets or functionally equals Listing 1.04.” (Doc.
10 at 7). Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the failure to appreciate the MRI results was
compounded when the ALJ found that her lower back pain had “no significant bearing on
[Plaintiff’s] ability to work.” (Id. (citation omitted)). She premises this latter argument on
the determination that the ALJ found
there is no credible, objective evidence which contradicts a conclusion that
[Plaintiff] is incapable (sic) of performing light levels of exertion with
restrictions for occasional bending and stooping and bilateral pushing and/or
pulling with her upper extremities.
(Id. (citing R. 30)).
The Commissioner responds that Plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ failed to properly consider
the MRI in determining whether Plaintiff met the spine disorder listing in 1.04 (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App.1, listing 1.04.A) is without merit. (Doc. 11 at 8, n.7). She states that to meet 1.04A,
Plaintiff must show not only nerve root compression, but it must be “characterized by neuro-antomic
distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrohpy with associated muscle
weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement
of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine).” (Id.)
Despite Plaintiff’s assertion that “[i]n fact, the MRI revealed nerve root compression,” (doc.
10 at 7 (citing R. 260), the MRI does not state that there was nerve root compression. It only states
that the bulge “compresses the right side of the thecal sac and the right lateral recess.” (R. 260).
Additionally, there is no other medical evidence in the record showing nerve root compression,
limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss, sensory or reflex loss, or a positive “straight-leg test,”
which would be required to constitute a listing. See 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1, listing
1.04.A. Thus, Plaintiff’s assertion is without merit.
To the extent Plaintiff relies on Flentroy-Tennant v. Astrue, 3:07-cv-101-J-TEM, 2008 WL
876961 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 27, 2008) and Baker v. Barnhart, 03-C-2291, 2004 WL 2032316 (N.D. Ill.
Sept. 9, 2004), the court finds them to be factually distinguishable. First, as to Flentry-Tennant, it
is distinguishable in that the case involved not one, but numerous misstatements. In fact, the court
noted, “While each of the ... misstatements and/or mis-characterizations ... when viewed individually
may not constitute such error as to require reversal, the numerous misstatements ... , taken as a
whole, reveal an inaccurate review of the record and inadequate support in the record.” Id., 2008
WL 876961 at *8. Second, as to Baker, the court held that the ALJ’s “blatant mis-characterization”
of the vocational expert’s testimony required a remand because it went directly to a critical
determination. Id., 2004 WL 2032316 at *7.
Misapplication of the Three-part Pain Standard
Plaintiff next asserts that the ALJ failed to properly apply the three-part pain standard. (Doc.
10 at 8). Further, she states that she “meets the ... standard because there is evidence of an
underlying medical condition and the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity
that it can be expected to cause the alleged pain.” (Id.) The Commissioner retorts that Plaintiff’s
argument that the “mis-characterization” of the MRI results was compounded when the ALJ found
that her lower back pain had “no significant bearing on [Plaintiff’s] ability to work” affords Plaintiff
no relief because the error was harmless. (Doc. 11 at 8, n.7). Specifically, the Commissioner states
that because the ALJ “conceded” that her condition reasonably could have caused her symptoms
and, therefore, was deemed to be a “severe impairment” capable of causing pain and other
limitations, he proceeded to evaluate the intensity and persistence of the symptoms and their effect
on her ability to work. (Id. at 8, n.7 (citing R. 25, 29)). The MRI did not, according to the
Commissioner, “confirm the severity of the alleged symptoms” and that is why the ALJ “properly
went on to evaluate the intensity and persistence of [Plaintiff’s] alleged symptoms and their effect
on her ability to work....” (Id.) Therefore, the Commissioner concludes there was no harm to
Plaintiff. (Id.) The Commissioner further states that “substantial evidence fully supports the ALJ’s
finding that such pain did not limit Plaintiff beyond the limitations accounted for in the RFC finding
or prevent Plaintiff from returning to her past relevant work.” (Id. at 9).
When a claimant asserts disability premised on pain or other subjective symptoms, the
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has set forth the applicable standard for consideration.
The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either
(2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising
from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of
such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.
Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). Recently applying this standard, Chief United
States District Judge Karon O. Bowdre stated:
If an ALJ discredits a claimant’s subjective complaints, he must give “explicit and
adequate reasons” for his decision. See id. at 1561-62. “A clearly articulated
credibility finding with substantial supporting evidence in the record will not be
disturbed by a reviewing court.” Id. at 1562. The ALJ’s credibility determination
need not cite “particular phrases or formulations” as long as it enables the court to
conclude that the ALJ considered the claimant’s medical condition as a whole. See
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210-11 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Foote, 67 F.3d at
Siquia v. Colvin, 3:11-cv-3269-KOB, 2013 WL 5521156, *6 (N.D. Ala. Sept. 30, 2013).
In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s medically determinable impairment of low
back pain could reasonably be expected to cause her symptoms. (R. 29). However, he further found
that “the substantial evidence does not support a conclusion that the objectively determined medical
condition is of such severity to give rise to the alleged disabling pain and limitations.” (Id.) In
support of this determination, he noted that Plaintiff hurt her back in 2004. She was out of work for
about two months. She reported to the emergency room on April 26, 2010, with back pain, nausea,
and vomiting, and was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst. (Id.) In August 2010, she complained of
back pain and an MRI was done, indicating disc space narrowing in the L5-S1 area. (Id. at 247).
A repeat lumbrosacral examination was recommended and performed. (Id.) It revealed a broad9
based disc bulge and right-sided herniation compressing the thecal sac and lateral recess and causing
disc space narrowing and desiccation with reactive bone marrow changes. (Id. at 260). There was
no spinal or frontal stenosis or thecal sac or nerve root compression elsewhere. (Id.) The
radiologist’s impression was “degenerative disc changes with a broad-based bulge and a right sided
disc herniation at L5-S1.” (Id.)
On August 20, 2010, Plaintiff complained that her primary physician had not been
sufficiently responsible to her back pain complaints. (Id. at 270). She was referred to another doctor
and to a neurologist for further evaluation. (Id.) On November 18, 2010, Plaintiff’s new doctor
noted that she came in seeking epidural treatment options, and referred her to a neurologist for
evaluation. (Id. at 282). Nothing in the record indicates that Plaintiff saw the neurologist. On
February 24, 2011, Plaintiff was treated for gastroenteritis and low back pain. The record indicates
that she complained that her back was hurting. (Id. at 280). At the time of the hearing before the
ALJ on July 20, 2011, she testified her pain was “constant and radiates down her hip and leg.” (Id.
at 45). It worsened with any physical activity. (Id.) She was taking three medications for her pain,
which on an average day was a “7 or 8 out of 10.” (Id. at 46-47) The medication reduced the pain
level to a “2 or 3.” (Id. at 47). As a consequence of the pain, she sated that she could only stand or
walk up to 15 minutes, sit up to an hour, and lift up to 15 pounds. (R. 47-48).
Premised on the foregoing, particularly the absence of any indication that Plaintiff went to
a neurologist or that she ever received an epidural block, the ALJ concluded that there was “no
credible, objective evidence which contradicts” the conclusion that Plaintiff was capable of
performing as determined. (Id. at 30). He undergirded his conclusion premised on the fact that
Plaintiff indicated, and the record shows she “took care of her children, cooked for them, did some
cleaning, and whatever else they needed.” (Id.) Plaintiff also takes care of her personal hygiene,
although she does experience some pain while bending or stooping; she did grocery shopping; she
paid the bills; and she used a checkbook. (Id.) Also, the treating physician’s observations are
consistent with the ALJ’s conclusion in that the physicians simply prescribed Plaintiff medications
and adjusted the same premised on her needs and indications from the radiographic and laboratory
findings. (Id. at 31). Finally, Plaintiff’s hearing testimony was not supportive of her claim regarding
debilitating pain in that she stated that the medication reduces the level of pain to a level of two or
three on a scale of ten up to four hours. (R. 46-47).
Absence of a Physician’s RFC Assessment
Lastly, as noted above, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work; she can occasionally bend and stoop, but not climb; and, she can occasionally
push and/or pull with her upper extremities. (R at 28). Plaintiff complains that “the Commissioner’s
decision should be reversed because there is absolutely no support for the ALJ’s RFC assessment
as the record is devoid of any RFC assessments from any physician whatsoever.” (Doc. 10 at 10).
Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ’s conclusion that she could perform light work with occasional
bending and stooping, but no climbing in a temperature-controlled environment with occasional
pushing and pulling with her upper extremities (id. at 28) is unsupported by a physical assessment
by a physician or a consultive examination by a medical professional. (Id.) Accordingly, she
concludes the lack of substantial evidence in the record warrants a reversal and entry of a finding of
disability premised on the present record. (Doc. 10 at 12). The Commission retorts that a RFC from
a physician is not required where there is substantial evidence in the record to support a decision.
(Doc. 11 at 10-14).
An RFC is an administrative finding “based on all the relevant evidence” in the record. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). It is not simply medical source opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3)
(“We will assess your residual functional capacity based on all of the relevant medical and other
evidence”). The determination of an individual’s RFC is a matter, along with others, that is
committed to the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). At the hearing level, the ALJ “is
responsible for assessing [Plaintiff’s] residual functional capacity.” 20 C.F.R. § 1546(c). SSR 965p provides:
Even though the adjudicator’s RFC assessment may adopt the opinions in a medical
source statement, they are not the same thing: A medical source statement is
evidence that is submitted to SSA by an individual’s medical source reflecting the
source’s opinion based on his or her own knowledge, while an RFC assessment is the
adjudicator’s ultimate finding based on a consideration of this opinion and all the
other evidence in the case record about what an individual can do despite his or her
SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, *4. “[A] medical source statement must not be equated with the
administrative finding known as the RFC assessment.” Id. at 5. The ALJ must evaluate any medical
opinion in light of the other evidence presented. See Green v. Social Sec. Admin., 223 F. App’x 915,
923-24 (11th Cir. 2007) (“Although a claimant may provide a statement containing a physician’s
opinion of her remaining capabilities, the ALJ will evaluate such a statement in light of the other
evidence presented and the ultimate determination of disability is reserved for the ALJ. 20 C.F.R
§§ 404.1513, 404.1527, 404.1545.”). Finally, in evaluating this claim, it must also be remembered
that while the ALJ has a duty to develop a full and fair record, that obligation does not relieve
Plaintiff of the “burden of proving that [she] is disabled, and, consequently, [she] is responsible for
producing evidence in support of [her] claim.” Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir.
The medical evidence before the ALJ did not substantiate Plaintiff’s claim of disabling
symptoms. Plaintiff points to no inconsistency between the ALJ’s RFC determination and the
medical evidence. Under the facts, the ALJ was not required to obtain an RFC from a physician.
Similarly, he was not required to obtain a consultative examination. See Holladay v. Bowen, 848
F.2d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 1988) (“the administrative law judge is not required to order a
consultative examination unless the record establishes that such an examination is necessary to
enable the administrative law judge to render a decision”); Ford v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 659 F.2d 66, 69 (5th Cir. 1981) (Unit B) (“It is reversible error for an ALJ not to order a
consultative examination when such an evaluation is necessary for him to make an informed
decision.”). There was sufficient evidence for the ALJ in this case to determine that Plaintiff had
not established that she was unable to return to past relevant work. This is particularly true in view
of Plaintiff’s testimony, cited above, that her medication reduces her pain to a level of two or three
for up to four hours. (R. 46-47). He was not required to further develop the record in view of what
was already before him. See Ingram v. Comm. Social Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253,1269 (11th Cir.
2007) (an ALJ “is not required to order a consultative examination as long as the record contains
sufficient evidence for the [ALJ] to make an informed decision”).3
To the extent Plaintiff relies on Coleman v. Barnhart, 264 F. Supp. 2d 1007 (S.D. Ala. 2007),
the court finds it to be inapposite for a number of reasons. First, it is not controlling in this court.
Second, it is factually distinguishable. In Coleman, the court noted that the finding of an ability to
do “medium work” was incongruent with the “plaintiff’s numerous severe impairments.” Id. at
The court also notes that Plaintiff merely is speculating that an further evaluations would support her
disability claim. This is insufficient to undermine the ALJ’s determination in this case. See Moore v. Barnhart, 405
F.3d 1208, 1213 (11th Cir. 2005).
Premised on the foregoing, the court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is due to be
AFFIRMED and the action be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. An appropriate order will be
DONE, this the 1st day of April, 2014.
JOHN E. OTT
Chief United States Magistrate Judge
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