McGrane v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 8/13/2015. (PSM)
2015 Aug-13 PM 03:03
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
KATHLEEN A. MCGRANE,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 2:14-CV-620-LSC
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
The plaintiff, Kathleen A. McGrane, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying
her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).
Ms. McGrane 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),
Ms. McGrane was fifty-seven years old at the time of the Administrative
Law Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision, and she has two years of college education. (Tr.
at 184.) Her past work experiences include employment as an underwriting clerk,
administrative clerk, admissions clerk, order clerk, caretaker, and daycare worker.
(Tr. at 195.) Ms. McGrane claims that she became disabled on May 1, 2010, due to
systemic scleroderma, pulmonary hypertension, asthma, mild narcolepsy, and sleep
apnea. (Tr. at 138, 183.)
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus
eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v.
Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in
order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made,
the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the
plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”).
See id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the
evaluator moves on to the next step.
The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of
the plaintiff’s medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of
impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational
requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding
of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The
decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v.
Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical
evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not
Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the
plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal
to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed
impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509
and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
If the plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or
medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff’s
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See id.
§§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine
whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant
See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).
If the plaintiff’s
impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing
his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.
The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff’s
RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the
plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find
him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff
cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms.
McGrane was last insured on December 31, 2012, before the date of her decision.
(Tr. at 30.) She further determined that Ms. McGrane has not engaged in SGA
since the alleged onset of her disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s
“positive ANA, Raynaud’s Phenomenon, peripheral neuropathy, esophageal
reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and
supraventricular tachycardia” are considered “severe” based on the requirements
set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, she found that Plaintiff’s sleep apnea,
narcolepsy, parasomnias, restless leg syndrome, and attention deficit disorder did
not significantly affect her ability to work and were non-severe. (Tr. at 31). The
ALJ 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. (Tr. at 32.) The
ALJ determined that Ms. McGrane has the following RFC:
To perform sedentary work . . . except the claimant may occasionally
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs but
may never climb ladders ropes or scaffolds. She must be allowed to
alternate between sitting and standing while remaining on task. The
claimant is able to frequently handle, finger, and feel bilaterally. She
must work in an environment that is in proximity to an accessible
bathroom, i.e., she must not have to traverse a large distance in order
to reach a bathroom as might be the case with a parks worker, a
groundskeeper, or a utility line worker. The claimant must avoid
moderate exposure to extreme cold; concentrated exposure to
extreme heat, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor
ventilation; and all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights.
According to the ALJ, Ms. McGrane was able to perform her past relevant
work as an administrative clerk, secretarial work, admissions clerk, and order clerk,
because the restrictions in her RFC did not preclude this past work. (Tr. at 37.) She
determined that Plaintiff was able to perform the physical and mental demands of
the work as the work is actually and generally performed. (Id.) The ALJ reached
this conclusion by consulting a Vocational Expert (“VE”), who testified that
Plaintiff’s past work as an underwriting clerk was a semi-skilled light position with
an SVP of 4, that her work as an administrative clerk was a skilled sedentary job
with an SVP of 6, and that her work as an admissions clerk and order clerk were
semi-skilled, sedentary jobs with SVPs of 4. (Tr. at 78-79). The VE thus testified
that the hypothetical person with Plaintiff’s RFC could not perform Plaintiff’s
work as an underwriting clerk, but could perform her work as an administrative
clerk, admissions clerk, and order clerk. (Tr. at 80). The ALJ concluded her
findings by stating that Plaintiff “was not under a ‘disability,’ as defined in the
Social Security Act, at any time from May 1, 2010, the alleged onset date, through
December 31, 2012, the date last insured.” (Id. (citation omitted)).
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 Stone
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App’x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives
deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are
supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal
conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).
Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute
its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210
(11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir.
“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
proof preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it must affirm if the
decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin
v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard
[for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] 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) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881,
883 (11th Cir. 1984)). 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. McGrane alleges that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and
remanded for three reasons related to her RFC finding. First, she believes that the
ALJ was required to specify the fractions of hours that she could sit or stand and
the failure to do so was reversible error. Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ
failed to consider her obesity in the RFC finding. Third, Plaintiff believes that the
ALJ should have relied upon a medical source opinion in formulating her RFC.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by not specifying the specific minutes
or hours in a day that she could sit or stand, and cites Social Security Rulings
(“SSR”) 96-9p and 83-12 in support of her argument. Plaintiff’s argument lacks
merit for several reasons. As an initial matter, the ALJ’s ruling stated that Plaintiff
could perform her previous work as an administrative clerk, admissions clerk, and
order clerk. (Tr. at 37.) This is thus a past relevant work case: step four in the
sequential evaluation. Therefore, this case was evaluated prior to reaching step five
in the sequential evaluation where the ALJ would have to determine whether the
plaintiff could adjust to other work. (Tr. at 37-38.) SSR 96-9p “explain[s] the Social
Security Administration’s policies regarding the impact of [an RFC] for less than a
full range of sedentary work on an individual’s ability to do other work.” SSR 96-9p,
1996 WL 374185 at *1 (emphasis added). While Plaintiff is correct that SSR 96-8p
requires a function-by-function analysis, the plaintiff is arguing for a ruling that
applies to the fifth and final step of the sequential evaluation, which is not used
here. (Tr. at 30.)
Similarly, the plaintiff believes that SSR 83-12 requires specificity in terms of
time allotted between sitting and standing. However, SSR 83-12 also is only
applicable when the plaintiff cannot perform her past work. See SSR 83-12, 1983
WL 31253 at *1. Additionally, the Sixth Circuit, in Wages v. Secretary of Health and
Human Services, held that where a person formerly held a job allowing a degree of
choice between sitting and standing, and that person is still capable of performing
that job, it is appropriate to find that individual not disabled. 755 F.2d 495, 498 (6th
Cir. 1985.) Therefore, the ALJ correctly found that Plaintiff was not disabled
despite the requirement for a sit/stand option.
Furthermore, even if these rulings applied in this case, the Eleventh Circuit
has previously upheld undefined sit/stand options. See Williams v. Barnhart, 140 F.
App’x 932, 937 (11th Cir. 2005) (unpublished) (“Although the ALJ failed to
specify the frequency that [the claimant] needed to change his sit/stand option, the
reasonable implication of the ALJ’s description was that the sit/stand option was at
the [the claimant’s] own volition.”). The ALJ’s statement that Plaintiff must be
allowed to “alternate between sitting and standing while remaining on task” is
sufficient. (Tr. at 32.) Indeed, the VE and Plaintiff’s attorney reasonably
understood the Commissioner’s proposed sit/stand limitation, since neither asked
at the hearing for clarification in what the Commissioner meant by a sit/stand
option. (Tr. at 80-81.)
In any event, Plaintiff did not demonstrate through medical evidence that
she needed a sit/stand option other than at will. In fact, during the hearing, Plaintiff
testified that she works on the computer two hours a day and crochets for one hour,
indicating that she could sit for extended periods of time. (Tr. at 57-58). She also
testified that she sat for at least 45 minutes after walking to the mailbox (tr. at 64),
but later testified she had to get up, move, and adjust after only 20 minutes of
sitting. (Tr. at 67-68).
Moreover, Plaintiff omits significant language in SSR 83-12 and SSR 96-9p,
thereby altering the purpose of these rulings. The omitted language in SSR 83-13
reads, “[I]n cases of unusual limitation of the ability to sit or stand, a [vocational
source] should be consulted to clarify the implications for the occupational base.”
See SSR 83-12, 1983 WL 31253 *4. There is similar language in SSR 96-9p, 1996
WL 374185 at *7. These rulings thus do not direct a finding of disability, and
merely provide for consultation with a VE. The ALJ adhered to these rulings here
by calling for the testimony of the VE, who testified concerning Plaintiff’s exertion
levels in her past relevant work. (Tr. at 78-81.)
The testimony of the VE
established that Plaintiff’s past relevant work at the sedentary level accommodated
Plaintiff’s need to change between a seated and standing position and is substantial
evidence in support of the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff was not disabled.
For these reasons, the Court is of the opinion that the Commissioner did not
err in failing to specify the number of hours in which the plaintiff could sit or stand.
Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner failed to consider her obesity.
Plaintiff states that she is 5’6” and weighs approximately 229 pounds, meaning that
she has Body Mass Index (“BMI”) of 37. She further states that her BMI is
classified by the National Institute of Health as level II obese as defined in SSR 021p. Plaintiff notes that obesity can limit one’s abilities and makes one’s body work
harder to rest and perform additional work. (Id.) Also, Plaintiff indicates that
obesity can complicate and aggravate her diagnosed physical and mental
Despite Plaintiff’s arguments about what obesity can do to an individual’s
functioning, the ALJ must evaluate a case on the information contained in the
record and cannot make assumptions about the severity or functional limitations
linked with obesity. See SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 628049. Indeed, Plaintiff bears the
burden of proving that her limitations arise from her impairments. See Moore v.
Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1214 & n.6 (“[T]he mere existence of these impairments
does not reveal the extent to which they limit her ability to work . . .”). Here, the
ALJ expressly stated that Plaintiff was obese and took her obesity into
consideration as required by SSR 02-1p. (Tr. at 36.) When taking Plaintiff’s obesity
into consideration, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s obesity did not further reduce her
RFC and did not significantly worsen her limitations from her impairments. (Id.)
The objective medical evidence supports this conclusion. The plaintiff’s records
suggest that despite her obesity and other impairments, Plaintiff is not further
limited. (Tr. at 36.) In fact, Plaintiff’s physical examinations and objective tests
consisted of no more than mild to moderate findings and were often normal. (Tr. at
36, 262-63, 280, 301-02.) For example, a medical examination on June 16, 2011,
revealed that the plaintiff had normal heart and lung sounds, a normal spine, and
good joints, with only mild tightness in skin over the fingers and redness of the face.
(Tr. at 262-63.) Also, the state agency non-examining physician, Dr. Heilpern,
opined that the plaintiff could perform light work in Plaintiff’s physical RFC
assessment on November 7, 2011. (Tr. at 367-73.) Plaintiff has not provided any
credible evidence to counter the evidence in the record. Thus, the plaintiff does not
meet the burden of proof showing that her obesity either alone or in conjunction
with other impairments further limits her ability to work. (Tr. at 36.)
C. Reliance on Medical Source Opinion
Plaintiff admits that there is no requirement for an ALJ to base the RFC
finding on a specific medical source opinion, but nonetheless argues that the
Commissioner needed to use a medical source opinion in this case in making the
RFC finding. In making her decision, the ALJ may ask for and consider the opinion
of a medical expert; however, the determination of a plaintiff’s RFC is an issue
reserved for the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2), 404.1546.
Indeed, the ALJ does not appropriate the opinion of one medical source, but rather
weighs all relevant evidence found in the record when making her decision. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 404.1545; see also Castle v. Colvin, 557 F. App’x 849, 853
(11th Cir. 2014) (“Contrary to the district court’s reasoning, the ALJ did not ‘play
doctor’ in assessing Mr. Castle’s RFC, but instead properly carried out his
regulatory role as an adjudicator responsible for assessing Mr. Castle’s RFC.”).
In the present case, the ALJ gave some, but not great, weight to the opinion
of Dr. Heilpern, the state agency non-examining physician. (Tr. at 37.) Dr.
Heilpern opined that the plaintiff could perform light work with occasional postural
limitations, frequent manipulative limitations, and environmental limitations. (Id.)
The ALJ also gave some deference to Plaintiff’s subjective complaints based on
evidence of neuropathy with leg pain, shortness of breath, and palpitations,
ultimately finding that Plaintiff was limited to sedentary work with a sit/stand
option and easy access to a restroom. (Id.) Therefore, the ALJ actually found the
plaintiff limited to a lower exertional level of work than what was suggested by the
state agency physician. Because the ALJ was not required to obtain a medical
source statement and did in fact consider the opinion of Dr. Heilpern, Plaintiff’s
argument lacks merit.
Assertions Made in Passing
In the conclusion to her brief, Plaintiff raises, but does not develop, several
additional arguments. By failing to elaborate on or in some cases provide citation
for these arguments, Plaintiff has waived them. See N.R.L.B. v. McClain of Georgia,
Inc., 138 F.3d 1418, 1422 (11th Cir. 1998) (“Issues raised in a perfunctory manner,
without supporting arguments and citation to authorities are generally deemed to
be waived.”). In the event they are not waived, they are considered here.
First, Plaintiff states that her prior work history supports her credibility.
However, the Eleventh Circuit has held that evidence of a prior good work history
is insufficient to establish a claimant’s credibility. See Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d
580, 583 (11th Cir. 1991.) Second, Plaintiff appears to assert that she is more limited
than the ALJ’s determination due to Plaintiff’s attention deficit disorder (“ADD”)
and sleep disturbance. (Id.) She cites no evidence to support this assertion. The
ALJ noted that Plaintiff testified to “being in a fog” and having difficulty
understanding the ALJ’s instructions. (Tr. at 31, 62.) However, in a function report
submitted to the Social Security Administration, the plaintiff reported that she had
to write down only detailed or important instructions, had no trouble following
written instructions, and that she could pay attention for a long time. (Tr. at 31,
168.) The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff continued to engage in activities that
required attention and awareness such as cooking and driving. (Tr. at 32.) The
Court finds that none of Plaintiff’s assertions warrant reversal or remand of this
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Ms.
McGrane’s arguments, the Court finds the Commissioner’s decision is supported
by substantial evidence and in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will
DONE and ORDERED on August 13, 2015.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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