Williams v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 12/16/2016. (PSM)
2015 Dec-16 AM 10:23
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
TAYLOR DANE WILLIAMS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
The plaintiff, Taylor Dane Williams, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying
his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Mr. Williams timely
pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies and the decision of the
Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Mr. Williams was twenty-three years old at the time of the Administrative
Law Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision, and he has a high school education and no past
relevant work. (Tr. at 19, 147). Mr. Williams claims that he became disabled on July
2, 2011, due to status post right sciatic nerve resection, status post right femoral
neck and status post left ulnar fractures, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. at 15).
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 Mr. Williams
has not engaged in SGA since the SSI application date, July 13, 2011. (Tr. at 15.)
According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s status post right sciatic nerve resection,
depression, anxiety, and status post right femoral neck and status post left ulnar
fractures are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the
regulations. (Id.) However, she 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. (Id.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC: to
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except he can lift and carry
twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit for six hours in an eighthour day; stand and walk for two hours in an eight-hour day; never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds, but occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never kneel or crawl,
but occasionally balance, stoop, and crouch; he must avoid all exposure to
workplace hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights; he can
maintain attention and concentration for two hours at a time; perform simple,
routine and repetitive tasks and must have the option to sit or stand at his
discretion. (Tr. at 15-16.)
According to the ALJ, Mr. Williams has no past relevant work, is a “younger
individual,” and has “at least a high school education” and is able to communicate
in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 19.) The ALJ
determined that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant
does not have past relevant work.” (Id.) Using the testimony of a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ reached the conclusion that there are jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that Mr. Williams can perform, considering his
age, education, work experience, and RFC, such as cashier, ticket seller, and bench
assembler. (Tr. at 20.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff
“has not been under a ‘disability,’ as defined in the Social Security Act, since July
13, 2011, the date the application was filed.” (Id.)
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).
Mr. Williams alleges that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and
remanded for one reason: the ALJ erred in giving no weight to the Medical Source
Statement (Mental) (“MSS”) submitted by his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Donald
Paoletti. For the reason that follow, Plaintiff’s argument lacks merit.
The ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical
opinions and the reasons for doing so. Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th
Cir. 1987). The weight that an ALJ should give to a medical opinion regarding the
nature and severity of a claimant’s impairments depends, among other things, upon
the examining and treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant,
the evidence the medical source presents to support the opinion, how consistent
the opinion is with the record as a whole, and the specialty of the medical source.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Generally, a treating physician’s opinion
is entitled to more weight, and an ALJ must give good reasons for rejecting it. See
id. § 416.927(c)(2). Thus, a treating physician’s testimony is entitled to
“substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.”
Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159 (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997)) (internal quotations omitted). “Good cause” exists for an ALJ to not
give a treating physician’s opinion substantial weight when the: “(1) treating
physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a
contrary finding; or (3) treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent
with the doctor’s own medical records.” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 (citing Lewis, 125
F.3d at 1440); see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583-84 (11th Cir. 1991)
(holding that “good cause” existed where the opinion was contradicted by other
notations in the physician’s own record). The ALJ may reject any medical opinion,
if the evidence supports a contrary finding. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835
(11th Cir. 1985).
The Court must also be aware of the fact that opinions such as whether a
claimant is disabled, the claimant’s RFC, and the application of vocational factors
“are 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). The Court is interested in the doctors’ evaluations of
the claimant’s “condition and the medical consequences thereof, not their opinions
of the legal consequences of his [or her] condition.” Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440. Such
statements by a physician are relevant to the ALJ’s findings, but they are not
determinative, as it is the ALJ who bears the responsibility for assessing a
claimant’s RFC. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c).
Dr. Paoletti saw Plaintiff only three times: in February 2011, January 2012,
and December 2012. (Tr. at 453-57.) In May 2012, after two visits with Plaintiff,
Dr. Paoletti completed the MSS, in which he indicated that Plaintiff had moderate
impairment of his ability to respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers and
the general public; a moderate impairment of the ability to use judgment in simple
one-and-two-step work related decisions; a marked impairment of the ability to use
judgment in detailed or complex work related decisions and a moderate impairment
of the ability to deal with changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. at 453.) He further
opined that Plaintiff had a moderate impairment of his ability to understand,
remember and carry out simple one-or-two-step instructions and a mild
impairment of the ability to maintain activities of daily living and moderate
restrictions on the ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed complex
instructions; respond to customary work pressure and maintain attention,
concentration or pace for periods of at least two hours. (Tr. at 454.) Dr. Paoletti
pointed out that Plaintiff’s attention and concentration was markedly impaired and
this affects his ability to pay attention to detail and follow through on tasks to
completion. (Id.) He also noted that Plaintiff’s impulsivity could affect his
The ALJ gave no weight to Dr. Paoletti’s MSS, explaining that it was “not
consistent whatsoever with the objective medical evidence as a whole.” (Tr. at 18.)
For the reasons that follow, the ALJ had good cause to discount the opinion.
First, the ALJ found Plaintiff had received very little treatment for his
alleged mental impairments. (Tr. at 18, 247, 455-458). Indeed, Plaintiff admits the
evidence does not reflect “an overwhelming amount of psychiatric treatment” and
shows “psychiatric treatment over a brief period of time.” (Doc. 9 at 10.) Such a
limited treatment history is inconsistent with disability. See Watson v. Heckler, 738
F.2d 1169, 1172-73 (11th Cir. 1984).
Moreover, Plaintiff’s limited mental health treatment records from his visits
with Dr. Paoletti, dated February 2011, January 2012, and December 2012, do not
support Dr. Paoletti’s opinion. (Tr. at 247, 455-458). When Dr. Paoletti treated
Plaintiff, he simply prescribed medication. (Tr. at 18, 247, 455-458). In February
2011, Dr. Paoletti indicated that Plaintiff’s medication was working well, his mood
was generally stable, and his anxiety was controlled. (Tr. at 247). Dr. Paoletti next
saw Plaintiff nearly a year later, in January 2012, about six months after his motor
vehicle accident and alleged disability onset date. (Tr. at 455). While Plaintiff’s
mood was “down” and he was “bored” and worried about the future, nothing in
Dr. Paoletti’s treatment notes demonstrates the marked limitations he assessed in
May 2012 in the MSS. (Tr. at 455). Similarly, Dr. Paoletti’s treatment notes from
December 2012, seven months after the MSS was submitted, do not support such
limitations. (Tr. at 458). In December 2012, Plaintiff’s mood was stable, he was
less irritable, and though he was quick-tempered, he could stay in control. (Tr. at
458). Plaintiff’s limited treatment records from his visits with Dr. Paoletti support
the ALJ’s decision to discount Dr. Paoletti’s MSS. (Tr. at 247, 455-58).
In addition, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s own testimony inconsistent with Dr.
Paoletti’s opinion. (Tr. at 18, 39-40). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that his only
limitation from depression is that he “gets down on [himself]” and tires easily. (Tr.
at 39). While he complained of nervousness and shortness of breath caused by
anxiety, he also testified that his medication helps. (Tr. at 40). Effective control of
symptoms undermines a claim of disability. See McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617,
620, n.1 (11th Cir. 1987). Plaintiff’s testimony is simply not consistent with the
marked limitations Dr. Paoletti indicated in his MSS. (Tr. at 18, 39-40, 453-454).
Additionally, the opinions of the one-time consultative examiner and the
non-examining State agency physician fail to support the drastic limitations opined
by Dr. Paoletti in May 2012. As noted by the ALJ, Mr. Williams underwent a
Mental Status Evaluation (“MSE”) with William Beidleman, Ph.D., in October
2011, during which time Dr. Beidleman conducted a mental status examination and
interview of Plaintiff. (Tr. at 423-25.) At the examination Plaintiff emphasized that
his main barrier to employment were his physical limitations. (Tr. at 425.) As a
result of the MSE, Dr. Beidleman diagnosed a history of attention deficient
hyperactivity disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features and a
probable history of dysthymic disorder, early onset. (Id.) Dr. Beidleman indicated
that Plaintiff was not in any focused mental health treatment at the time. (Id.) He
concluded that Plaintiff appeared able to function independently, remember simple
job instructions, respond appropriately to fellow employees and supervisors, and
cope with ordinary work pressures. (Id.)
Dr. Beidleman’s examination simply evinced very little in the way of mental
abnormalities. The ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Beidleman’s opinion because it
was consistent with the objective medical evidence as well as his own examination
findings. (Tr. at 18, 423-425). Dr. Beidleman’s opinion constitutes substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c); Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971) (stating that “a written report by a licensed
physician who has examined the claimant and who sets forth . . . his medical
findings in his area of competence may . . . constitute substantial evidence
supportive of a finding by the [ALJ] adverse to the claimant”).
Finally, non-examining State agency psychologist Dr. Robert Estock’s
opinion supports the ALJ’s decision to discount Dr. Paoletti’s opinion. (Tr. at 19,
438, 440, 442-444). State agency consultants are experts in disability evaluation
whose opinions may be entitled to great weight if supported by the evidence in the
record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(2); Social Security Ruling 96-6p, 1996 WL
374180, at *2-3 (S.S.A); see also Forrester v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 455 F. App’x 899,
902-3 (11th Cir. 2012) (concluding that the ALJ did not err in giving more weight to
the non-examining physician’s opinion than to the treating physician’s opinion
when the treating physician’s opinion was contradicted by the record). Dr. Estock
reviewed the objective medical evidence in October 2011, including not only Dr.
Beidleman’s findings but also Plaintiff’s treatment records at that time, which
reflected his minimal mental health treatment. (Tr. at 440). Dr. Estock determined
Plaintiff had no more than moderate mental limitations. (Tr. at 438, 442-444.) He
opined that an appropriate limitation would be that the plaintiff could understand
and remember simple job instructions but not detailed ones; that he could carry out
simple instructions but not detailed ones; that the plaintiff could attend and
concentrate for two hour periods on simple tasks in a regular work day with
customary rest breaks; and that the changes in the work place should be infrequent,
well explained and gradually introduced and that the plaintiff may need help
making realistic plans and goals. (Tr. at 444.) The ALJ afforded great weight to that
opinion because she found it consistent with the objective medical evidence as a
whole. (Tr. at 19).
Plaintiff argues that Dr. Beidleman examined Plaintiff only once and Dr.
Estock did not examine Plaintiff, but for the reasons already explained, because
there was good cause for the ALJ to discount the treating physician’s opinion,
nothing prevented her from giving more weight to the opinions of the one-time
consultative examiner and the non-examining physician, considering the evidence
supported them. Because Dr. Paoletti’s MSS was not based on his own treatment
notes, not supported by the other medical evidence of record, and further not
supported by Plaintiff’s own testimony concerning his mental impairments,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision not to adopt Dr. Paoletti’s
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Mr.
Williams’ arguments, the Court finds the Commissioner’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence and in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will be
DONE and ORDERED on December 16, 2015.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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