Hill v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 9/18/15. (MRR )
2015 Sep-18 AM 11:05
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
Case No.: 2:14-cv-01322-SGC
The plaintiff, Oscar Hill, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental
Security Income (“SSI”). Hill timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the
Commissioner’s decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 1383(c)(3). For the reasons
discussed below, the Commissioner’s decision is due to be affirmed.
I. Procedural History
Hill has at least a high school education and has previously worked as a production
assembler, laborer, and repairman. (Tr. at 29, 138-39, 159). In his application for SSI as
amended, Hill alleged he became disabled on February 17, 2010, as a result of gout, sciatic nerve
pain, arthritis, diabetes, foot and leg pain, high blood pressure, and tuberculosis. (Id. at 131-32,
137, 158). After his claim was denied, Hill requested a hearing before an administrative law
judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 54-59, 66). Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Hill’s claims. (Id. at 718). Hill was 55 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (Id. at 18, 25, 27). After the
Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s decision (id. at 1-3), that decision became the
The parties have consented to the exercise of full dispositive jurisdiction by a magistrate judge pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 14).
final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F. Supp. 2d 1246, 1251 N.D.
Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). Thereafter, Hill
initiated this action. (Doc. 1).
II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To establish his eligibility 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. §
416(i)(1)(A); see also id. at § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Social Security
Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual’s eligibility for
disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial
gainful activity.” Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(i). “Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to
show that [he] is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed. App’x 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012). If the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.920(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Hill has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged onset date of February 17, 2010. (Tr. at
If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next
determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or
combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at
least twelve months.
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
An impairment “must result from
anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Furthermore, it “must be established
by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the
claimant’s] statement of symptoms.” Id. at § 416.908; see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). An
impairment is severe if it “significantly limits [the claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do
basic work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c).2 “[A]n impairment can be considered as not
severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it
would not be expected to interfere with the individual’s ability to work, irrespective of age,
education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also
20 C.F.R. § 416.921(a).
A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of
impairments, even though none of the individual impairments alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. §
The claimant bears the burden of providing medical evidence demonstrating an
impairment and its severity. Id. at §§ 416.912(a) and (c). If the claimant does not have a severe
impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not
disabled. Id. at §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined Hill has the
following severe impairments: obesity, gout, disorders of the back, and osteoarthritis. (Tr. at 12).
If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the
Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meets or equals one of the
“Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii);
Basic work activities include:
(1) [p]hysical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching,
carrying, or handling; (2) [c]apacities for seeking, hearing, and speaking; (3) [u]nderstanding,
carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) [u]se of judgment; (5) [r]esponding
appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations; and (6) [d]ealing with changes
in a routine work setting.
20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b).
see also id. at §§ 416.925 and 416.926. The claimant bears the burden of proving his impairment
meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed. App’x at 863. If the claimant’s
impairment meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will find the claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Hill does
not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 13-14).
If the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the
Commissioner must determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before
proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e); see also id. at § 416.945. A claimant’s
RFC is the most he can do despite his impairments. See id. § 416.945(a)(1). At the fourth step,
the Commissioner will compare his assessment of the claimant’s RFC with the physical and
mental demands of the claimant’s past relevant work. Id. at §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (e),
416.960(b). “Past relevant work is work that [the claimant] [has] done within the past 15 years,
that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do
it.” Id. § 416.960(b)(1). The claimant bears the burden of proving his impairment prevents him
from performing his past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed. App’x at 863. If the
claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work, the Commissioner will find the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.960(b)(3). Before proceeding to the
fourth step, the ALJ determined Hill has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
416.967(b),3 except he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can only occasionally climb
ramps or stairs; can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or balance; and should avoid
“Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing
up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good
deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg
controls.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b).
all exposure to the use of hazardous machinery, operational control of moving machinery, and
unprotected heights. (Tr. at 14-16). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Hill is capable of
performing his past relevant work as a production assembler. (Id. at 16-17). Nonetheless,4 the
ALJ proceeded to the fifth step and additionally determined that in light of Hill’s age, education,
work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that Hill can perform, such as those of a laundry worker, table worker, and ticket taker.
(Id. at 17-18). Based on his determinations at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation, the
ALJ concluded Hill is not disabled. (Id. at 18).
III. Standard of Review
Review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination of whether that
decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct
legal standards. Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A
district court must review the Commissioner’s findings of fact with deference and may not
reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007);
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district court must “scrutinize
the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by
substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (internal
citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a
Generally, if the claimant can perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (f). If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, the
Commissioner must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in
substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience.
20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.960(c)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the
Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is not
capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. Id.
preponderance.” Id. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial
evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater,
84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.
A district court reviews the Commissioner’s legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala,
985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner’s] failure to apply the correct law or to
provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal
analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46
(11th Cir. 1991).
On appeal, Hill argues (1) the ALJ improperly discredited his testimony regarding the
disabling effects of his back and leg pain and (2) the ALJ’s determination of Hill’s RFC is not
supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 11 at 3-11).5
A. Credibility Determination
When a claimant attempts to establish disability through his own testimony of pain or
other subjective symptoms, the pain standard articulated by the Eleventh Circuit in Holt v.
Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221 (11th Cir. 1991), applies. See also Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206,
1210 (11th Cir. 2005).
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
In his conclusion, Hill states without elaboration or citation that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the
record. (Doc. 11 at 11). “[An] ALJ has a duty to develop the record fully and fairly.” Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d
1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 1999). Here, the ALJ did just that. In making his disability determination, the ALJ had the
benefit of Hill’s medical records; evaluations completed by an independent medical consultant, a state agency
physician, and a state agency psychiatrist; and Hill’s testimony. (Tr. at 23-51, 199-509).
Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223). Provided the Holt pain standard is met,
an ALJ considers a claimant’s testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms. Foote v. Chater,
67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995).
An ALJ is permitted to discredit a claimant’s subjective testimony of pain or other
symptoms if he “clearly ‘articulate[s] explicit and adequate reasons’” for doing so. Dyer, 395
F.3d at 1210 (quoting Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62). “A clearly articulated credibility finding with
substantial supporting evidence will not be disturbed by a reviewing court.” Foote, 67 F.3d at
In determining credibility an ALJ may consider objective medical evidence and a
claimant’s reported daily activities, amongst other things. 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c).
Here, the ALJ found Hill’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause his alleged symptoms but that Hill’s statements concerning the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms are not entirely credible. (Tr. at 16). He
made this finding after considering Hill’s medical records, the medical opinion evidence, and
Hill’s statements and testimony, and he articulated a number of reasons for affording Hill only
partial credibility. (Id. at 14-16).
First, the ALJ noted Hill’s medical records do not support the degree of limitation Hill
alleges. (Id. at 16). Specifically, the ALJ noted healthcare providers have consistently treated
Hill’s impairments conservatively with medication, by referring him to a pain clinic and physical
therapy, and by encouraging him to exercise and alter his diet for purposes of weight loss. (Id. at
14-15). This is true. (See, e.g., id. at 203, 205, 208-10, 230, 234-39, 244, 246-49, 263-66, 268306, 327, 336-48, 353-74, 385, 452-65, 467-69, 471, 473, 475-78, 485-92, 495-98, 502-03). In
April of 2009, imaging of Hill’s lumbosacral spine revealed a mild degenerative change of the
lumbar spine. (Id. at 314). Shortly thereafter, Hill successfully completed approximately one
month of physical therapy for lower back pain. (Id. at 404-10). His discharge note indicates he
reported feeling much better. (Id. at 404). A treatment record signed just a few days before
Hill’s discharge from physical therapy notes a normal back exam and, specifically, a normal
range of motion, no CVA tenderness, no lower back pain, no muscle spasms, and no vertebral
tenderness. (Id. at 323). By February of 2010, imaging of Hill’s lumbar spine revealed a broadbased disc bulge, disc herniation, and mild epidural lipomatosis. (Id. at 350). However, the ALJ
found that treatment notes associated with this diagnosis indicated no resulting functional
limitations. (Id. at 15). Contrary to Hill’s claim (Doc. 11 at 5), substantial evidence supports
this finding. Records of examinations performed after the February 2010 imaging of Hill’s
lumbar spine lack documentation of functional limitations associated with his back problems.
(Tr. at 376-80,382-92, 467-507). Additionally, Hill reported no musculoskeletal symptoms in
November of 2010. (Id. at 377). Although he did report “pain all over” in August of 2012, a
contemporaneous physical exam revealed normal spine curvature, symmetry, mobility, and
tenderness; that his extremities showed no atrophy, tremor, cyanosis, clubbing, edema, redness,
tenderness, limitation of joint motion, or deformities; and that his gait was normal. (Id. at 468).
It was also noted during that exam that while Hill reported his back pain limits his functioning,
he also reported opiates helped. (Id. at 469). Finally, imaging of Hill’s knees performed in
August of 2011 showed the joint spaces were well-maintained medially and laterally on both
sides and that both knees were symmetrical and unremarkable. (Id. at 481).
Second, the ALJ noted medical opinions provided by David Aarons, M.D., an
independent medical consultant who evaluated Hill in person in January of 2011, and Robert
Heilpern, M.D., a state agency employee who assessed Hill’s medical records in March of 2011,
do not support the degree of limitation Hill alleges. (Id. at 16). Dr. Aarons diagnosed Hill with
mild right sciatica, left knee pain probably caused by degenerative joint disease of the left knee
and post-traumatic osteoarthritis, and intermittent gout. (Id. at 424). Dr. Heilpern diagnosed Hill
with obesity, lumbar radiculopathy, gout, arthritis, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension. (Id. at
430). As a result of these impairments, Dr. Heilpern opined Hill is limited to light work with
some postural limitations and should avoid all exposure to hazards. (Id. at 431-34). The ALJ
gave significant weight to these medical opinions because Hill’s medical records do not indicate
Hill is more limited than Dr. Aarons or Dr. Heilpern opined. (Id. at 15). Furthermore, the ALJ
noted that although Dr. Heilpern only examined Hill’s medical records, Dr. Aarons evaluated
Hill in person, and neither opinion contradicts the other. (Id.). Finally, the ALJ noted Hill’s
activities of daily living support the opinions of Dr. Aarons and Dr. Heilpern. (Id.).
Hill challenges the weight given to the opinions of Dr. Aarons and Dr. Heilpern on a
variety of grounds. (Doc. 11 at 7-8). He notes Dr. Heilpern did not examine Hill. (Id. at 7).
However, state agency medical consultants are highly qualified physicians who are also experts
in Social Security disability evaluation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(2)(i). Their opinions may be
entitled to considerable weight if sufficiently supported by the record. SSR 96-6p. Hill claims
Dr. Heilpern did not have the benefit of objective medical evidence—specifically, the February
2010 imaging of his lumbar spine—when forming his opinions. (Doc. 11 at 7).
speculation undercut by Dr. Heilpern’s citation to Hill’s medical records. (Tr. at 431). Although
Dr. Heilpern did not explicitly cite to the February 2010 imaging of Hill’s lumbar spine, he did
cite an October 2010 medical record noting lumbar radiculopathy. (Id.). Hill also speculates Dr.
Heilpern relied on only three medical records and Dr. Aarons’s evaluation in forming his
opinions. (Doc. 11 at 7). Even if true, Hill fails to articulate how that undermines the weight
afforded those opinions, which the ALJ found to be consistent with Hill’s medical records.
Confusingly, at the same time, Hill claims Dr. Heilpern’s opinions contradict Dr. Aarons’s
findings of positive straight leg raising and decreased sensation. (Doc. 11 at 7-8). Dr. Heilpern
noted both of these findings. (Tr. at 431, 534). Hill fails to articulate how these findings are
inconsistent with Dr. Heilpern’s opinion he could perform light work with some restrictions.
Finally, Hill claims medical records post-dating Dr. Aarons’s evaluation and Dr. Heilpern’s
assessment, which were completed in early 2011, reveal Hill is more limited that Dr. Aarons or
Dr. Heilpern opined. (Doc. 11 at 8). Hill does not indicate which medical records he believes
demonstrate his limitations beyond those found by Dr. Aarons or Dr. Heilpern or what those
limitations are. The weight given the opinions of Dr. Aarons and Dr. Heilpern is supported by
substantial evidence, including but not limited to the absence of functional limitations
documented in Hill’s medical records.
Third, the ALJ noted Hill’s testimony that he is capable of doing a range of activities of
daily living and performing various chores at a varied pace does not support the degree of
limitation he alleges. (Id. at 16). Specifically, Hill testified he cooks, cleans, does laundry,
watches television, and plays chess. (Id. at 38-39). He further testified he cares for his mother,
who suffers residual complications from a stroke, and his grandmother, who has dementia. (Id.
at 37-39, 43-44). Hill argues the ALJ mischaracterized the extent of his participation in these
activities. (Doc. 11 at 8-9). For example, he notes he testified his aunt handles most of the
repairs at the home where he lives with his mother and grandmother and comes over all of the
time to take care of his mother. (Id. at 8; see also id. at 36-37). While this may be true, Hill also
testified he provides care for his mother and grandmother within his limitations (id. at 36-39, 4344), which is consistent with the ALJ’s characterization of his daily living activities. He further
argues his ability to participate in daily living activities does not preclude a finding of disability.
(Id. at 9-10). An ALJ may not rely on a claimant’s daily activities alone in making a disability
determination. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1441 (11th Cir. 1997). However, an ALJ
may consider these activities when making a credibility determination as to a claimant’s
testimony of pain and its limiting effects. 20 C.F.R. 416.929(c); Strickland v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 516 Fed. App’x 829, 832 (11th Cir. 2013) (ALJ’s credibility finding as to claimant’s
subjective complaints of symptoms and their limitations was supported by evidence of claimant’s
daily living activities). Here, the ALJ properly considered Hill’s daily living activities as one of
several factors cutting against Hill’s testimony as to his pain and its limiting effects.
In sum, the ALJ clearly articulated his reasons for discrediting Hill’s testimony of his
symptoms and their limiting effects and that credibility determination is supported by substantial
B. RFC, Generally
Hill generally argues the ALJ’s determination he has the RFC to perform light work with
certain limitations is not consistent with his medical records, but rather the ALJ picked and chose
records to support his determination. (Doc. 11 at 10). The only specific piece of evidence Hill
cites is the February 2010 imaging of his lumbar spine. (Id.). He claims the ALJ ignored the
findings documented by this imaging. (Id.). In fact, the ALJ discussed this evidence explicitly.
(Tr. at 15). An ALJ is not required to refer to every piece of evidence in his decision. Dyer, 395
F.3d at 1211. Here, the ALJ’s determination of Hill’s RFC is supported by the medical records,
medical opinions, and daily living activities discussed above. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3)
(RFC is assessed based on all relevant medical and other evidence). Accordingly, contrary to
Hill’s claim (Doc. 11 at 10-11), Grid Rule 201.12 is not implicated here.6
The “Grids,” also known as the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, are found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App.
2. An ALJ may use them to determine at the fifth step whether other work exists in substantial numbers in the
Having reviewed the administrative record and considered all of the arguments presented
by the parties, the undersigned find the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and in accordance with applicable law.
Therefore, that decision is due to be
AFFIRMED. A separate order will be entered.
DONE this 18th day of September, 2015.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
national economy that a claimant is capable of performing. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1239 (11 th Cir.
The [G]rids provide for adjudicators to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or
light work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. Each
of these factors can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an individual.
Combinations of these factors yield a statutorily-required finding of “Disabled” or “Not Disabled.”
Id. at 1240; see also Gibson v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 1516, 1520 (11 th Cir. 1985). Grid Rule 201.12 provides that an
individual between the ages of 50 and 54 with a high school education and a history of unskilled work who is
limited to sedentary work is disabled. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 2, § 201.12.
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