Rutledge v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge T Michael Putnam on 7/21/15. (MRR )
2015 Jul-21 PM 04:06
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
NATASHA L. RUTLEDGE,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
The plaintiff, Natasha L. Rutledge, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (ACommissioner@) denying her
application for Supplemental Security Income (ASSI@) and Disability Insurance
Benefits (ADIB@). Ms. Rutledge 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), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the
undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ' 626(c). (Doc. 9).
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Ms. Rutledge was 32 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge=s
(AALJ=s@) decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 36, 148). Her past
work experiences include employment as a cashier, custodian, and hospital cleaner.
(Tr. at 52-53). Ms. Rutledge claims that she became disabled on November 1,
2010, due to degenerative disc disease with bulging and herniated discs, and
arthritis. (Tr. at 148).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the
regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R.
'' 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir.
2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is Adoing
substantial gainful activity.@ 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If
he or she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is
not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental
impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These
impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a
claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical
evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If
the claimant=s impairments are not severe, the analysis stops.
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'' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step
three, which is a determination of whether the claimant=s impairments meet or equal
the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20
C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant=s impairments fall
within this category, he or she will be found disabled without further consideration.
Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant=s residual functional capacity
(ARFC@) will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R.
'' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment based
on all relevant evidence of a claimant=s remaining ability to do work despite her
impairments. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant=s
impairments prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. ''
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his or her past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the
claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.
Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant=s RFC, as well as the
claimant=s age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or
she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the
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claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of
demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the
Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to
perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d
1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Rutledge
has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from
the date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 19). She determined that
Ms. Rutledge has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset
of her disability. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ, Plaintiff=s degenerative disc
disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine,
cervicalgia and obesity are considered Asevere@ based on the requirements set forth
in the regulations. (Tr. at 21). She further determined 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 23). The ALJ did not find Ms. Rutledge=s allegations
of debilitating pain to be entirely credible (Tr. at 24), and she determined that the
plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity: to perform light work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she may only
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occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs; can
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can engage in frequent reaching in all
directions, including overhead; can engage in frequent fingering; must work in an
environment that does not have stringent production or speed requirements and thus
may not perform fast-paced assembly line work . (Tr. at 23).
According to the ALJ, Ms.Rutledge is able to perform her past relevant work
as a cashier as it is actually and generally performed. (Tr. at 26). The ALJ
concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff is Anot disabled under sections 216(i)
and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.@ (Tr. at 27).
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
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the
Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions.
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See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide
facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id.
AThe 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
evidence preponderates against the Commissioner=s decision, the Court must affirm
if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No
decision is automatic, however, for Adespite this deferential standard [for review of
claims] it is imperative that the 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). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds
for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
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Ms. Rutledge alleges that the ALJ=s decision should be reversed and
remanded because, she asserts, the ALJ failed to properly base her residual
functional capacity findings upon substantial evidence and, in reaching her
conclusion, the ALJ misapplied the pain standard set forth by the Eleventh Circuit
Court of Appeals. (Doc. 10). More specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ=s
residual functional capacity findings are improper because they are not based on a
medical source opinion (AMSO@) and because the ALJ failed to employ a
consultative examiner (ACE@) or a medical expert (AME@).
(Doc. 8, pp. 9-13).
Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ improperly failed to apply the Eleventh
Circuit=s three-part pain standard in addressing the effect of pain on Plaintiff=s ability
to function. (Doc. 8, pp. 6-9).
A. Residual Functioning Capacity
The ALJ determined that Ms. Rutledge could perform a limited range of light
work. (Tr. at 25-26).
The Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ gave Ano weight@ to the
opinion of the State Agency medical consultant, Dr. Chastain. (Tr. at 295-302).
The Plaintiff further argues that the opinion was thus based on Ano physical medical
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opinion,@ and that Ms. Rutledge=s case is due to be remanded for the ALJ to obtain Aa
properly assessed RFC from a treating or examining source.@ (Doc. 8, p. 10).
The court must be aware of the fact that opinions such as whether a claimant is
disabled, the claimant=s residual functional capacity, and the application of
vocational factors Aare not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues
reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are
dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of
disability.@ 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1527(e), 416.927(d).
Whether the Plaintiff meets the
listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved
for the ALJ, and the court Amay not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or
substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.@ Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005).
It is odd that the plaintiff complains that the ALJ gave no weight to the
assessment made by Dr. Chastain as it was even less favorable to her than the
determination made by the ALJ. Dr. Chastain opined that Ms. Rutledge=s medical
evidence of record does not support the degree of physical limitations that Ms.
Rutledge has alleged. (Tr. at 300 -02). Dr. Chastain described Ms. Rutledge=s
MRIs as Anormal for age with no clinically significant findings.@ (Tr. at 300). The
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ALJ gave Dr. Chastain=s functional capacity assessment little weight B not Ano
weight@ as alleged by Plaintiff=s counsel B based upon her determination that Ms.
Rutledge=s testimony about the extent of her pain was sufficient to warrant
additional restrictions than those set forth by Dr. Chastain. (Tr. at 26).
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has a residual functioning capacity to
perform light work with the exceptions and limitations set forth supra. After
considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff=s medically
determined impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged
symptoms, but explicitly found her statements regarding the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of those symptoms lacked credibility. (Tr. at 24). The ALJ
properly considered the evidence that Plaintiff complained of pain, but noted that the
degenerative disc disease, as shown by a 2010 x-ray, a 2009 MRI, 2011 x-rays, and
two 2011 MRIs failed to show the types of Aabnormalities one would expect if the
claimant were in fact disabled.@ (Tr. at 24). The ALJ further noted that the
treatment prescribed was physical therapy (which Ms. Rutledge did not do) and
muscle relaxers and pain medications. Her most recent treatment notes showed that
the Neurontin was easing her back pain, and that she was walking more. (Tr. at 25).
The ALJ referred to treatment notes in which her treating physician consistently
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noted that the objective tests did not show serious abnormalities, and that
medications helped with the pain. Based upon the medical evidence, including the
evaluation by Dr. Chastain, and giving some credence to plaintiff=s allegations
regarding the persistence of her pain, the ALJ imposed some limitations on
Plaintiff=s capacity to work, adding limitations regarding speed. (Tr. at 26).
The ALJ examined the evidence, along with Dr. Chastain=s examination, and
provided a detailed analysis and reasoning for the weight accorded to each. The ALJ
did not find that Ms. Rutledge did not have the conditions she alleged or
accompanying pain; the ALJ simply found that the conditions affecting her neck and
back are not so debilitating as to render her unable to perform certain light work.
The medical records show that the conditions did exist, but consistently rate the
cervical and lumbar spine conditions as relatively mild, and consistently
demonstrate that plaintiff was helped by medication.
The ALJ did not reach the RFC determination in the absence of any medical
opinion evidence, as Plaintiff asserts. The ALJ considered the medical opinion
evidence, in conjunction with the medical records, and reached a decision that gave
Plaintiff the benefit of the doubt in finding her less capable of work than the physical
capacities evaluation prepare by Dr. Chastain.
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Accordingly, the ALJ=s RFC
determination is supported by substantial evidence.
The decision was both
comprehensive and consistent with the applicable SSA rulings.
Ms. Rutledge=s Allegations of Pain
Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ=s evaluation of her subjective complaints of
pain was improper. She argues that the ALJ failed to apply the three-part pain
standard that has been set forth by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. More
specifically, she argues that the ALJ did not give enough credence to her subjective
testimony about her ability to stand or sit, or her need to spend two to three hours per
day lying down due to pain. (Doc. 8, p. 8).
The appellate court has determined that subjective testimony of pain and other
symptoms may establish the presence of a disabling impairment if it is supported by
medical evidence. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). To
establish disability based upon pain and other subjective symptoms, A[t]he 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.@
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921
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F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991)); see also Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551, 1553
(11th Cir. 1986).
The ALJ is permitted to discredit the claimant=s subjective testimony of pain
and other symptoms if she articulates explicit and adequate reasons for doing so,
based on substantial evidence. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir.
2002); see also Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 (1996) (A[T]he adjudicator
must carefully consider the individual=s statements about symptoms with the rest of
the relevant evidence in the case record in reaching a conclusion about the credibility
of the individual=s statements.@). Although the Eleventh Circuit does not require
explicit findings as to credibility, A>the implication must be obvious to the reviewing
court.=@ Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Foote, 67 F.3d at 1562). A[P]articular
phrases or formulations@ do not have to be cited in an ALJ=s credibility
determination, but it cannot be a Abroad rejection@ which is Anot enough to enable
[the district court or this Court] to conclude that [the ALJ] considered her medical
condition as a whole.@ Id. (internal quotations omitted).
In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the first prong of the Eleventh
Circuit Court of Appeals=s pain standard, but she did not believe that the evidence
confirms that the impairments are of such severity that they could reasonably be
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expected to give rise to the disabling pain and other limitations alleged by Plaintiff.
(Tr. at 24). The ALJ noted that the limitations described by Plaintiff were not
substantiated by the treatment records.
The record supports the ALJ=s
skepticism regarding her credibility, based at least in part upon her repeated
statements that medication helps with her pain and that the records show only
minimal abnormalities of the spine.
The ALJ specifically addressed Plaintiff=s allegations of pain in her opinion,
and she provided explicit and reasonable reasons for rejecting Plaintiff=s testimony
regarding the severity of her pain. The ALJ noted that while the Plaintiff testified
that she could only sit or stand for 10 minutes without increased pain, she repeatedly
told her treating physicians that the Neurontin helped or Aeffectively treated@ her
back pain (Tr. at 391, 392), and that Celebrex Ahelped@ with the pain. (Tr. at 389).
The ALJ explained as follows:
After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned
finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the
claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting
effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons
explained in this decision.
In terms of the claimant’s alleged musculoskeletal impairments,
including degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine
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and cervicalgia, the claimant's treatment records fail to reveal the type
of significant clinical and laboratory abnormalities one would expect if
the claimant were in fact disabled.
Although objective imaging results reveal that the claimant has a
back impairment, these results fail to confirm the claimant’s allegation
that this impairment is completely debilitating. A December 2010
x-ray of the claimant's cervical spine revealed no acute findings (Ex 4F
at 21). A 2009 magnetic resonance imaging scan of the claimant's
lumbar spine revealed degenerative disc disease at L4-5 and L5-S 1
with no evidence of canal stenosis and minimal disc herniation. A
magnetic resonance imaging of the claimant's thoracic spine revealed
some degenerative changes with no evidence of disc herniation.
April 2011x-rays of the claimant's lumbar and thoracic spine revealed
degenerative disc disease (Ex. 5F at 7-8). July 2011imaging results of
the claimant’s bilateral shoulders revealed no arthritis and no
significant AC joint degenerative changes. A cervical spine series
revealed loss of cervical lordosis (Ex. 8F at 1). An August 2011
magnetic resonance imaging of the claimant's cervical spine revealed
C3-4 and C5-6 disc protrusions (Ex. lOF at 19).
Physical examinations and treatment notes also undermine the
claimant’s allegations as to the debilitating nature of her physical
impairments. The claimant had treated her arthralgias with her
primary care physician, an orthopedist and a rheumatologist. On
April 4, 2011, the claimant presented to her primary care physician with
low back pain and bilateral leg pain. Her physician prescribed flexeril
and referred her to an orthopedist (Ex. 9F at 6). The claimant
presented to orthopedist Lloyd Johnson, MD later that month alleging 3
years of back pain radiating down her legs, as well as hip pain. She
stated that her pain was getting progressively worse (Ex. 5F at 2).
After reviewing imaging results, Dr. Johnson opined that the claimant
had degenerative disc disease of the thoracic and lumbar spine and that
her hip pain was spinal in etiology (Ex. 5F at 8). At an April 19, 2011
physical examination, Dr. Johnson found tenderness in the thoracic and
lumbar region but no focal motor deficits in the lower extremities. The
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claimant had back pain only with a bilateral straight leg raise test. Dr.
Johnson prescribed physical therapy and pain management (Ex. 5F at
(Tr. at 24). The ALJ carefully detailed the chronological history of the various
MRIs, x-rays, and other objective medical tests that failed to substantiate medical
conditions severe enough to cause the debilitating pain plaintiff claimed.
The objective medical and other evidence supports the ALJ=s conclusion
that Plaintiff=s conditions did not cause disabling limitations and instead shows that
she could perform a reduced range of light work. Not only did the ALJ articulate
reasons for rejecting the plaintiff’s claim of debilitating pain, that rejection is
supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Ms.
Rutledge=s arguments, the Court finds the Commissioner=s decision is supported by
substantial evidence and is in accord with the applicable law; accordingly, the
decision is due to be AFFIRMED. A separate judgment will be entered.
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DONE this 21st day of July, 2015.
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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