Wilson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 8/28/14. (ASL)
2014 Aug-28 PM 12:11
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BRENDA SHELBY WILSON,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Acting Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Civil Action No.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), claimant Brenda Wilson seeks judicial
review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The
Commissioner affirmed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
who denied Ms. Wilson’s claim for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits. Because substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision, the Court
affirms the Commissioner’s ruling.
STANDARD OF REVIEW:
The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the
ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review,” the Court “review[s]
the ALJ’s ‘factual findings with deference’ and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close
scrutiny.’” Riggs v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed. Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir.
2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record
to support the ALJ’s findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is
such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support
a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not “reweigh the evidence or
decide the facts anew,” and the Court must “defer to the ALJ’s decision if it is
supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against
it.” Gaskin v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed. Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013).
With respect to the ALJ’s legal conclusions, the Court must determine
whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in
the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide
sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis,
then the Court must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d
1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND:
On January 3, 2011, Ms. Wilson applied for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.
124). The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Wilson’s application on
March 10, 2011. (R. 71). At Ms. Wilson’s request, on November 21, 2012, an
Administrative Law Judge conducted a hearing concerning Ms. Wilson’s
application. (R. 42). Ms. Wilson and an impartial vocational expert testified at the
hearing. (R. 40-69). At the time of her hearing, Ms. Wilson was 48 years old, and
she had completed one semester of college. (R. 45). Ms. Wilson has a high school
education. (R. 45, 147). Her past relevant work experience is as a customer service
manager and a security guard. (R. 46, 63-64, 147, 164-167).
On December 19, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Wilson’s request for disability
benefits, concluding that Ms. Wilson did not have an impairment or a combination
of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in, the Regulations. (R.
24-39). The ALJ found that Ms. Wilson had not “engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 18, 2010, the alleged onset date.” 1 (R. 29). In addition, the
ALJ concluded that Ms. Wilson has “the following severe impairments:
The Court reviewed not only the ALJ’s decision, but also Ms. Wilson’s medical records. The
Court finds that the ALJ’s description of Ms. Wilson’s medical evaluations is accurate. In a
number of instances in this opinion, the Court has provided citations not only to the ALJ’s
decision but also to the underlying records to illustrate that there is no discrepancy between the
depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an anxiety disorder.” (Id.). The
ALJ stated, “these impairments are severe because the evidence  indicated that
they caused [Ms. Wilson] more than minimal work-related functional limitations
for at least twelve months.” (Id.). The ALJ also found that Ms. Wilson has the
following non-severe impairments: hypertension, osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus,
reflux disease, hyperlipidemia, and obesity. (Id.). Nevertheless, the ALJ concluded
that Ms. Wilson does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets, or medically equals, the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Specifically, the ALJ noted that:
[Ms. Wilson’s] mental impairments, considered singly
and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the
criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06. In making this
finding, the undersigned considered whether the
‘paragraph B’ criteria are satisfied. To satisfy the
‘paragraph B’ criteria, [Ms. Wilson’s] . . . mental
impairments must result in at least two of the following:
marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked
difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or
pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of
extended duration. . . . 2 Because [Ms. Wilson’s] mental
impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked’
limitations or one ‘marked’ limitation and ‘repeated’
episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration,
the ‘paragraph B’ criteria are not satisfied.
“A marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme. Repeated episodes of
decompensation, each of extended duration, means three episodes within a year, or an average of
every 4 months, each lasting at least two weeks.” (R. 30).
(R. 30). In addition, the ALJ did not find evidence that Ms. Wilson suffered from
a “residual disease process.” (Id.). Because Ms. Wilson did not suffer from a
residual disease process, her mental impairments did not meet “paragraph C”
criteria. (Id.). Based on these factual findings, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Wilson
had the “residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all
exertional levels . . . limited to the performance of simple, routine, and repetitive
tasks in a work environment where changes occur on no more than an occasional
basis, and where there is no greater than occasional interaction with coworkers or
the general public.” (R. 31).
In making this RFC determination, the ALJ first considered Ms. Wilson’s
mental health treatment record and found that Ms. Wilson’s mental health
treatment providers suggested that she did not have any “significant ongoing
functional restrictions” due to depression or anxiety. (R. 32). In support of that
conclusion, the ALJ reviewed various treatment notes and the opinions of various
For example, treatment notes from Trinity Medical Center
indicated that in 2008 and 2009, Ms. Wilson was evaluated by doctors
“intermittently” who treated her “intermittently” with medication management. (R.
In January 2010, Ms. Wilson’s depression and anxiety became
more severe after her mother died. In response, her doctors “prescribed additional
medication.” (R. 31, 50). The ALJ examined medical records from 2011, which
indicated that Ms. Wilson reported to her treatment providers that she “‘fe[lt]
mostly normal at this time;’ was doing ‘extremely well lately;’ and that medication
management ‘ha[d] done a world of difference for her depression and anxiety.’”
(R. 31, 258-273).
In February of 2012, Ms. Wilson’s treatment providers diagnosed her with
post-traumatic stress disorder; however, they noted that Ms. Wilson “was doing
well, and [we] offered [her] access to social work services.” (R. 32, 334).
2012 treatment notes indicate that Ms. Wilson’s anxiety and depression were “very
well controlled” and that Ms. Wilson reported that she was “happy all the time.”
In September 2012, Ms. Wilson began treatment at Chilton Shelby
Mental Health Center.
During her visit, counselors recommended
individual and group therapy. (Id.). The providers noted that Ms. Wilson’s global
function score was 53, and that she had “moderate difficulty in social,
occupational, or school functioning.” (R. 32, 377).
The ALJ also reviewed the results of a psychological evaluation that Dr.
Renee Myers performed on March 7, 2011. (R. 329). Dr. Myers, an independent
consultative examiner, found that Ms. Wilson is “capable of interacting with others
in a work setting, responding to supervision, and learning new tasks, but due to her
acute emotional distress, she does not have the motivation or coping ability to do
so.” (R. 331-332).
The ALJ assessed the results of a review of Ms. Wilson’s records conducted
by Dr. Melissa Jackson, a State agency doctor. Dr. Jackson conducted a review of
Ms. Wilson’s records in March 2011.
(R. 310-322; 324-327).
concluded that Ms. Wilson was not significantly limited or only moderately limited
in her understanding and memory; sustained concentration and persistence; social
interaction; and adaptation. (R. 324-325). Dr. Jackson opined that Ms. Wilson
was capable of “maintaining attention for two-hour segments on simple tasks” and
that Ms. Wilson “would also likely miss 1-2 days [of work] per month dealing with
mental health symptoms.” (R. 326).
The ALJ also evaluated Ms. Wilson’s testimony regarding her impairments.
(R. 31). The ALJ determined that Ms. Wilson’s allegations of pain and limitation
were “less than entirely credible.” (Id.). The ALJ found that Ms. Wilson’s
allegations were “partially credible” for the following five reasons:
. . .  doctors provided generally conservative
treatment, [that] did not suggest that [Ms.Wilson] had
significant ongoing functional limitations, and did not
recommend that [Ms. Wilson] avoid working or even
performing specific activities of daily living; 
statements provided by [Ms. Wilson] and Ms. Bell
suggest that [Ms. Wilson] has significant mental health
issues and that she was experiencing side effects from her
medication… [which were] not relayed to [Ms. Wilson]’s
treating doctors;  medical opinion evidence does not
validate the allegations of severe and profound limitation;
 [Ms. Wilson]’s testimony indicated she had been
consistently applying for jobs during the same time
which she claims to have been disabled; and  [Ms.
Wilson] told her providers in September 2012 that she
did not want to work and she was worried that if she
worked, it would affect her benefits.
The ALJ also considered the opinion of a vocational expert (VE) who
testified at Ms. Wilson’s hearing. The VE stated that a person of Ms. Wilson’s
age, education, and work experience with Ms. Wilson’s RFC “would be able to
perform the requirements of representative occupations such as industrial cleaner,
self-service laundry attendant, and machine operator.” (R. 34, 64).
Based on his review of the record, the ALJ found that Ms. Wilson “has the
residual functioning capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels
. . . [with] certain nonexertional limitations, in that [Ms. Wilson] is limited to the
performance of simple, routine and repetitive tasks, in a work environment where
changes occur on no more than an occasional basis, and where there is no greater
than occasional interaction with coworkers or the general public.” (R. 31). The
ALJ reasoned that Ms. Wilson’s ability to perform work at all exertional levels had
. . . compromised by nonexertional limitations. To
determine the extent to which these limitations erode the
occupational base of unskilled work at all exertional
levels, the [ALJ] asked the vocational expert whether
jobs exist in the national economy for an individual with
[Ms. Wilson]’s age, education, work experience, and
residual functional capacity . . . .
Pursuant to SSR 00-4p, the undersigned has determined
that the vocational expert’s testimony is consistent with
the information contained in the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles. Based on the testimony of the
vocational expert, the undersigned concludes that,
considering [Ms. Wilson]’s age, education, work
experience, and residual functioning capacity, [Ms.
Wilson] is capable of making a successful adjustment to
other work that exists in significant numbers in the
(R. 34). The ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that would accommodate Ms. Wilson’s limitations. (R. 34).
Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Wilson “is not disabled under sections
216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.” (R. 35).
On April 26, 2013, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to review the ALJ’s decision.
(R. 1). Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Ms. Wilson filed this action
for judicial review pursuant to §205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must be disabled.
Gaskin, 533 Fed. App’x at 930. “A claimant is disabled if he is unable to engage
in substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically-determinable impairment
that can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last
for a continuous period of at least 12 months.”
Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant must prove that she is disabled. Id. (citing Ellison v.
Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003). To determine whether a claimant
is disabled, the Social Security Administration applies a five-step sequential
analysis. Gaskin, 533 Fed. App’x at 930.
This process includes a determination of whether the claimant (1) is
unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe and
medically-determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such
an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration
requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in the light of
his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to
other work, in the light of his residual functional capacity, age,
education, and work experience.
Id. (citation omitted).
“The claimant’s residual functional capacity is an
assessment, based upon all relevant evidence, of the claimant’s ability to do work
despite his impairments.” Id. (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)).
Ms. Wilson argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision
because: (1) the ALJ did not give sufficient weight to Dr. Myers’s opinion; (2) the
ALJ improperly afforded great weight to Dr. Jackson’s opinion; (3) the ALJ failed
to consider Ms. Wilson’s non-exertional impairment of pain and her related
testimony; and (4) the ALJ failed to properly consider the impact of poverty on
Ms. Wilson’s ability to obtain treatment. These contentions are without merit.
The ALJ Properly Rejected Dr. Myers’s Opinion
Dr. Myers was a one-time examining physician and was not Ms. Wilson’s
treating physician. Therefore, her opinion is not entitled to deference.
Denomme v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 518 Fed. Appx. 875, 879 (11th Cir. 2013) (“The
ALJ does not have to defer to the opinion of a physician who conducted a single
examination, and who was not a treating physician.”) (citing McSwain v. Bowen,
814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987)). Nevertheless, the ALJ still was required to
explain the weight she assigned to Dr. Myers’s opinion and her rationale for doing
so. See Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011)
(“[T]he ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical
opinions and the reasons therefor.”) (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279
(11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam)). Otherwise, the Court cannot determine whether the
ALJ’s decision is based upon substantial evidence. See id.
In this case, the ALJ clearly articulated her reasons for rejecting Dr. Myers’s
The ALJ explained that Dr. Myers’s findings were only “partially
credible” and contradicted other evidence in the record. (R. 32). For example, the
ALJ found that Ms. Wilson’s “presentation to Dr. Myers was not consistent with
her presentation to any of her treating providers during that time.” (R. 33). The
ALJ expressly found that medical and testimonial evidence contradicted Dr.
Myers’s opinion that Ms. Wilson lacked the ability to interact with others in a work
environment and learn new skills due to her acute emotional distress. (R. 33). The
ALJ also noted that Dr. Myers’s opinions concerning Ms. Wilson’s condition were
inconsistent with Ms. Wilson’s presentations to all of her treating providers during
the same period. (R. 33). For example, Dr. Myers noted that Ms. Wilson had not
been receiving psychiatric care because she had lost her job and her health
insurance. (R. 32). However, treatment records show that Ms. Wilson had been
receiving psychiatric care and that treatment providers had been managing Ms.
Wilson’s medication. (R. 32-33). Because Dr. Myers’s opinion is not entitled to
deference, and because the ALJ stated with particularity the weight assigned to Dr.
Myers’s opinion and the reasoning for the weight assigned, substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s decision to give little weight to Dr. Myers’s opinion.
The ALJ Did Not Err in Finding Dr. Jackson’s Opinion Credible
and Giving Dr. Jackson’s Opinion More Weight Than Dr.
Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(2)(i), the ALJ “must consider findings
and other opinions of State agency medical and psychological consultants. . . .”
The ALJ compared Dr. Jackson’s opinions to the evidence in the record and
determined that Dr. Jackson’s opinions were more credible than Dr. Myers’s
(R. 31). The ALJ explained that Dr. Jackson’s conclusions were
consistent with the record as whole. For example, the ALJ noted that Ms. Wilson’s
treatment records indicate that she:
. . . experienced significant grief, depression, and anxiety
following her mother’s death in 2011. However, just a
few months later, treatment notes indicated that [Ms.
Wilson] had improved significantly on medication, was
able to engage in a range of activities, had returned to
school to pursue her master’s degree, and had become
engaged to marry. Further, [Ms. Wilson] did not
reference any significant ongoing functional restrictions
due to her impairments, and nor did any of [her]
providers suggest the same.
The ALJ’s reasons for assigning greater weight to Dr. Jackson’s opinion
than Dr. Myers’s opinion are “explicit, adequate, and supported by substantial
evidence in the record.” Wainwright v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2007 WL 708971, at
*2 (11th Cir. March 9, 2007) (substantial evidence supported ALJ’s decision to
accept opinion of State Agency psychologist where the ALJ stated with
particularity the reasons for doing so); see also Osborn v. Barnhart, 194 Fed.
Appx. 654, 668 (11th Cir. 2006) (substantial evidence supported ALJ’s decision to
credit State Agency physician’s evaluation over other medical opinions where the
claimant failed to produce any evidence from a medical source indicating the
limitations his impairments had on his ability to work and where the State Agency
evaluation was supported by other objective evidence). Accordingly, the ALJ did
not err in finding Dr. Jackson’s opinion more credible than Dr. Myers’s opinion.
The ALJ properly considered Ms. Wilson’s non-exertional
impairment of pain and her related testimony
An ALJ “appl[ies] a three part ‘pain standard’ when a claimant attempts to
establish disability through his or her own testimony of pain or other subjective
symptoms.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). “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.”
Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). A claimant’s testimony
coupled with evidence that meets this standard “is itself sufficient to support a
finding of disability.” Id. (citation omitted).
“If the ALJ decides not to credit a claimant’s testimony as to her pain, he
must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Foote, 67 F.3d at
If the ALJ does not explicitly state that he found the testimony
incredible, “the implication must be so clear as to amount to a specific credibility
finding.” Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1255 (11th Cir. 1983). Thus, the
ALJ need not make his credibility conclusion explicit if it obviously follows from
“explicit and adequate reasons.” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62 (emphasis added).
The ALJ properly applied the three-part pain standard and provided explicit
and adequate reasons for discrediting Ms. Wilson’s testimony regarding the nature
and severity of her pain.
Regarding the pain standard, the ALJ found that Ms.
Wilson’s underlying medical conditions “could reasonably be expected to cause
the alleged symptoms.” (R. 33). However, the ALJ found that Ms. Wilson’s
“statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of th[ose]
symptoms [were] not entirely credible for the reasons explained in [the ALJ’s]
decision.” (R. 33).
To make a determination of a claimant’s credibility, the ALJ may consider
evidence in the record regarding: a claimant’s daily activities, types and dosages of
medications and the frequency with which a claimant sought medical treatment for
his conditions or complained of such symptoms on his visits to doctors. Dyer v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005). The ALJ determined that Ms.
Wilson’s testimony was “partially credible” based on the following factors: (1) Ms.
Wilson’s “conservative treatment” history, and treatment notes from previous
medical providers that did not suggest Ms. Wilson had “significant ongoing
functional limitations”; (2) Ms. Wilson’s failure to relay mental health limitations
or side effects from medication to her doctors; (3) Dr. Myers’s treatment notes that
indicated Ms. Wilson’s concern that if she worked, her benefits would be
impacted; (4) inconsistencies between Ms. Wilson’s statements that she had not
received psychiatric treatment due to lack of insurance but treatment records
indicating that she was “receiving such treatment during that period of time”; and
(5) treatment notes from 2011 noting that after consistently taking her medication
for six months, Ms. Wilson was “doing extremely well” and her indication that the
medication “ha[d] done a world of difference for her depression and anxiety.” (R.
32-33). Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s credibility finding. See e.g.,
Petteway v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 353 Fed. Appx. 287 (11th Cir. 2009) (substantial
evidence supported ALJ’s determination that the claimant’s subjective allegations
were not credible where the claimant saw improvement after prescribed injections
and medical expert testimony and reviewing physician opinions indicating the pain
level claimed was inconsistent with the medical evidence on record); Carman v.
Astrue, 352 Fed. App’x 406, 408 (11th Cir. 2009) (“The ALJ articulated various
inconsistencies in [the claimant’s] evidence that a reasonable person could
conclude supported the ALJ’s finding that [the claimant’s] subjective complaints
of pain were not entirely credible.”).
The ALJ Did Not Err in Failing to Consider the Impact of
Poverty on Ms. Wilson’s Ability to Obtain Treatment
The Eleventh Circuit has recognized that “if one’s disability could be cured
by certain treatment, yet treatment is not financially available, then a condition
which is disabling in fact continues to be disabling in law.” Belle v. Barnhart, 129
Fed. Appx. 558, 560 n.1 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Dawkins v. Bowen, 848 F.2d
1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1988)).
Ms. Wilson’s argument that the ALJ failed to
consider the impact of her poverty on her ability to obtain treatment fails for two
First, Ms. Wilson has not demonstrated how her poverty prevented her
from receiving or obtaining treatment. In fact, the record suggests that after she
lost her health insurance, Ms. Wilson transferred her treatment from Trinity to
Chilton/Shelby Mental Health Center. (R. 376). Additionally, during her hearing,
Ms. Wilson testified that she took a number of medications, and she did not
indicate that she could not afford any of her prescribed treatment.
Therefore, Ms. Wilson has not demonstrated and the record does not reflect that
Ms. Wilson was unable to obtain treatment or prescribed medication due to her
poverty. Second, even if Ms. Wilson were unable to afford her treatment, the ALJ
did not base his decision on a finding of noncompliance. Therefore, the ALJ did
not err in failing to consider any purported noncompliance.
See Ellison v.
Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003) (ALJ’s failure to consider
claimant’s ability to afford medication was not in error because the ALJ did not
significantly base his decision that the claimant was not disabled on a finding of
noncompliance with prescribed treatment).
Consistent with the foregoing, the Court concludes the ALJ’s decision was
based upon substantial evidence and consistent with applicable legal standards.
Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
DONE and ORDERED this August 28, 2014.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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