Griffith v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION - For the reasons set forth herein, and upon careful consideration of the administrative record and memoranda of the parties, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Griffiths claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits is AFFIRMED and this action DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Signed by Magistrate Judge John H England, III on 3/11/2016. (KEK)
2016 Mar-11 AM 11:49
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
LINDA G. GRIFFITH,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Case Number: 2:14-cv-02244-JHE
MEMORANDUM OPINION 1
Plaintiff Linda G. Griffith (“Griffith”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), §
205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Griffith timely pursued and exhausted her
administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated
below, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
I. Factual and Procedural History
Griffith filed her application for a period of disability and DIB in July 2011, alleging she
became unable to work beginning March 31, 2005. (Tr. 101-04). Griffith was a fifty-seven
year old female on June 30, 2009, her date last insured (“DLI”). (Tr. 22, 103). Griffith has at
least a high school education and past relevant work as a dispatcher. (Tr. 47, 141). The Agency
In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 73, the parties have voluntarily consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge
conduct any and all proceedings, including trial and the entry of final judgment. (Doc. 10).
initially denied Griffith’s application, and Griffith requested a hearing where she appeared in
March 2013. (Tr. 31-51). After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied
Griffith’s claim on April 12, 2013. (Tr. 20-27). Griffith sought review by the Appeals Council,
but it declined her request on September 20, 2014. (Tr. 1-6). On that date, the ALJ’s decision
became the final decision of the Commissioner. On November 19, 2014, Griffith initiated this
action. (See doc. 1).
II. Standard of Review 2
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is narrowly circumscribed. The
function of this Court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by
substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This 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). 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 preponderance.”
This Court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence. However, it
reviews the ALJ’s legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the
ALJ’s determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528,
531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the ALJ
In general, the legal standards applied are the same whether a claimant seeks DIB or
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). However, separate, parallel statutes and regulations
exist for DIB and SSI claims. Therefore, citations in this opinion should be considered to refer to
the appropriate parallel provision as context dictates. The same applies to citations for statutes or
regulations found in quoted court decisions.
fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 114546 (11th Cir. 1991).
III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of
disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations
promulgated thereunder. 3 The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability to do 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 (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To
establish entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or
mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.
The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:
whether the claimant is currently employed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals an impairment listed
by the [Commissioner];
whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to the formerly applicable C.F.R.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999);
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499.
accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “Once the claimant has
satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed
impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the
burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.”
Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The
Commissioner must further show such work exists in the national economy in significant
IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge
After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation
process, the ALJ made the following findings:
At Step One, the ALJ found Griffith last met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act on June 30, 2009 (her date last insured or “DLI”), and that Griffith had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of March 31, 2005 through her DLI.
(Tr. 22). At Step Two, the ALJ found Hicks has the following severe impairments: irritable
bowel syndrome, hiatal hernia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, obesity, chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease, status post bilateral knee replacement, and status post cervical fusion. (Id.).
At Step Three, the ALJ found Griffith did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 23).
Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Griffith’s residual functioning
capacity (“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined that, through her DLI, Griffith had the RFC to perform
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), except Griffith could occasionally balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes, or scaffods;
must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, fumes odors, dusts, gases and
poor ventilation; must work in an environment that does not have stringent production or speed
requirements. (Tr. 23-26).
At Step Four, the ALJ determined, through the date last insured, Griffith was capable of
performing her past relevant work as a dispatcher. (Tr. 26). Therefore, the ALJ determined
Griffith had not been under a disability and denied her claim. (Tr. 26-27).
Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his does not relieve
the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether
substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding.” Walden v. Schweiker, 672
F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)).
The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for
that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination Griffith failed to
demonstrate a disability, and the ALJ applied the proper standards to reach this conclusion.
Griffith challenges the Commissioner’s decision on two specific grounds, contending: (1) the
ALJ failed to develop the record when he did not obtain a medical opinion; and (2) the record,
including the ALJ’s RFC findings, support a finding of disability under the Medical Vocational
Rules. (Doc. 12 at 5-9). Neither of these grounds supports reversal.
A. The ALJ Was Not Required to Utilize a Medical Expert
Establishing the onset of disability prior to the DLI is necessary for a claimant seeking
disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(3), 423(a); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101, 404.130,
404.131 (2014); see Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). Any impairment
that arose after the claimant’s DLI, when her insured status expired, cannot be the basis for a
finding of disability. See Milam v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 1284, 1286 (5th Cir. 1986); Owens v.
Heckler, 770 F.2d 1276, 1280 (5th Cir. 1985). Thus, the ALJ properly focused on the record as
it existed prior to June 30, 2009.
Griffith argues the Social Security Ruling 83-20 (“SSR 83-20”), 1983 WL 31249 (Jan. 1,
1983), requires an ALJ to obtain an opinion from a medical expert to determine her disability
onset date. (Doc. 12 at 5-7). SSR 83-20 applies when there has been a finding of disability, and
it becomes necessary to determine when that disability originated.
SSR 83-20 at *1
(“PURPOSE: To state the policy and describe the relevant evidence to be considered when
establishing the onset date of disability . . . .” and “In addition to determining that an individual
is disabled, the decisionmaker must also establish the onset date of disability . . . .”). Here, the
ALJ did not find Griffith disabled, either before or after her DLI, and he had no need to
determine the onset date. See Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 274 (6th Cir. 1997) (“Since there
was no finding that the claimant is disabled as a result of his mental impairment or any other
impairments or combination thereof, no inquiry into onset date is required.”).
There is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ’s determination that Griffith could
perform light work with certain limitations and was therefore not disabled prior to her DLI.
Griffith has failed to meet her burden to prove she was disabled prior to June 30, 2009, and
testimony from a medical expert would not change the substantial record evidence supporting the
Griffith specifically argues the ALJ should have obtained an opinion from a medical
expert to assist in identifying signs and symptoms of impairments prior to her DLI and argues the
ALJ improperly made inferences from the record. (Doc. 12 at 6-7). This argument ignores the
basic nature of the disability evaluation process and the ALJ’s role. The Social Security Act
specifically provides that the Commissioner is responsible for deciding whether a claimant is
disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1). The Act also states that the Commissioner “shall have full
power and authority to make rules and regulations and to establish procedures, . . . and shall
adopt reasonable and proper rules and regulations to regulate and provide for the nature and
extent of the proofs and evidence . . . to establish the right to benefits hereunder.” 42 U.S.C. §
405(a). In accordance with the Act, the Commissioner has established that when a claimant
appeals to the hearing level, the ALJ is responsible for determining whether the claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.929, 404.944, 404.946.
Regarding issues such as whether the claimant’s impairments meet or equal a listed
impairment, the assessment of the claimant’s RFC, the application of vocational factors, and
whether the claimant is disabled, the regulations specifically state that the responsibility for
deciding these issues rests with the Commissioner, i.e., the ALJ in Griffith’s case. 20 C.F.R. §
Opinions on these issues “are opinions on issues reserved for the Commission 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(d); see SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL
374183 (July 2, 1996); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).
Although the ALJ will consider opinions from acceptable medical sources on ultimate issues,
“the final responsibility for deciding these issues is reserved for the Commissioner.” 20 C.F>R.
§ 404.1527(d)(2). See SSR 96-5p.
Use of a medical expert is generally at the discretion of the ALJ. See Hearings, Appeals,
and Litigation Law Manual (“HALLEX”) I-2-5-32, 2014 WL 637369. An ALJ is not obligated
to seek independent medical testimony before deciding a claim when the record provides
sufficient evidence to support his or her decision. Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1276, 1287 (11th
Cir. 1999). Furthermore, the ALJ’s RFC finding does not need to mirror the findings or opinion
or any particular medical source. Such a requirement would confer upon the physician the
authority to determine the RFC, and “would be an abdication of the Commissioner’s statutory
responsibility to determine whether an individual is disabled.” SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at
*2; see Shaw v. Astrue, 392 Fed. Appx. 684, 687 (11th Cir. 2010); Robinson v. Astrue, 365 Fed.
Appx. 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010).
Griffith contends that a medical expert might have assisted the ALJ in considering the
effects of her obesity pursuant to SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 628049 (Sept. 12, 2002). (Doc. 12 at 8).
However, the ALJ properly accounted for Griffith’s obesity at multiple stages of the sequential
evaluation process. The ALJ found Griffith’s obesity to be a severe impairment at step two; the
ALJ considered Griffith’s obesity in combination with other impairments at step three,
determining they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments; and the ALJ
considered Griffith’s obesity in formulating Griffith’s RFC at step four.
Furthermore, Griffith introduced no evidence of any functional limitations resulting from her
obesity that the ALJ did not consider. As a condition is only relevant to the extent to which it
limits the claimant’s work, the ALJ adequately considered Griffith’s obesity.
To the extent Griffith argues a medical expert could have address her ability to maintain
concentration, persistence, or pace, (doc. 12 at 8), this factor is only an issue when considering a
mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ did not find Griffith had a severe
mental impairment, and she has alleged no error in that regard.
Furthermore, the ALJ’s
restriction of Griffith to non-stringent production or speed requirements addresses her
gastrointestinal impairments, not mental impairments.
Finally, Griffith’s argument that the ALJ’s restriction to non-stringent production or
speed requirement is “vague and not readily vocationally quantifiable,” (doc. 12 at 8), is belied
by the fact the ALJ properly relied on testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) to conclude that
Griffith could perform her past relevant work. Griffith’s representative stipulated to the VE’s
qualifications and declined the opportunity to cross-examine the VE. (Tr. 47-49, 71-72). The
ALJ applied the proper legal standards and was not required to utilize a medical expert.
B. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s RFC Finding, Which Does Not Require a
Finding of Disabled
Griffith argues that because of the postural restrictions the ALJ found, the appropriate
exertional level for her was sedentary, not light. (Doc. 12 at 9). Substantial evidence supports
the ALJ’s RFC assessment that Griffith could perform light work, with certain postural and
environment limitations, and no stringent production requirements. (Tr. 22). The inclusion of
postural limitations does not convert the exertional level of the work.
In support of his RFC assessment, the ALJ cites objective medial evidence concerning
Griffith’s gastrointestinal issues that predated her DLI. (Tr. 24-25). The ALJ notes Griffith’s
June 2006 and March 2007 diagnosis for reflux esophagitis, hiatal hernia, GERD, and IBS. (Tr.
24, 226, 228, 238). The ALJ discusses Griffith’s March 2008 consultation with Rohit Malik,
M.D., a gastroenterologist, for chest pain not due to a heart problem. (Tr. 24-25, 36t0-63, 390).
Furthermore, CT scans from May 2008 of Griffith’s abdomen and pelvis show no abnormal
findings. (Tr. 369-70).
The ALJ noted that a year later, in March 2009, Griffith presented with shortness of
breath and Dr. Malik assessed her with complicated reflux, with possible silent aspiration
exacerbating pulmonary symptoms, microcytosis of uncertain etiology, and epigastric pain. (Tr.
25, 358-59). The ALJ noted that in May 2009, Griffith reported her chronic diarrhea had
resolved and she had an excellent response to other medication.
gastroenterologist, Mukul Mehra, M.D., indicated “[s]he feels that her symptoms are all but
gone.” (Tr. 377). The ALJ noted this was the last gastrointestinal evidence prior to Griffith’s
DLI. (Tr. 25).
The ALJ also reviewed evidence of Griffith’s musculoskeletal impairments, including her
knee and spine surgery, noting the records did not reveal significant clinical or laboratory
abnormalities consistent with disabling conditions. (Tr. 25). The ALJ noted that in February
2008, Griffith presented with bilateral knee pain and was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and failed
medical compartment unification of the left knee by Shane Buggay, M.D., an orthopedic
surgeon. (Tr. 25, 205, 310). An August 2008 total left knee arthroscopy was successful. (Tr.
25, 222). The ALJ noted Griffith reported to Dr. Buggay her knee was doing very well as of
February 2009. (Tr. 25, 306-07).
Regarding Griffith’s cervical condition, the ALJ noted she complained of neck and arm
pain in December 2008. (Tr. 25, 304). Dr. Buggay indicated neither pain medication nor
physical therapy helped with the pain. (Tr. 304-05). As the ALJ noted, in February 2009, Dr.
Buggay performed cervical decompression surgery for diagnosis of cervical radicular pain,
spondylosis, and disk osteophyte complex at C5-6 and C6-7. (Tr. 25, 315-17). Later in February
2009, at a post-operative visit, Griffith reported her arm pain was completely gone and she was
doing well. (Tr. 25, 303).
Similarly the ALJ found the medical records regarding Griffith’s COPD did not reveal
significant clinical and laboratory abnormalities consistent with disabling conditions prior to her
DLI. (Tr. 25). He noted Griffith stopped smoking in 2007, but had previously smoked two to
three packs a day. (Tr. 25, 361). The ALJ recognized Griffith was hospitalized in 2009 for
severe COPD exacerbation with shortness of breath (dyspnea) and severe bronchospasm. (Tr.
25, 463, 64). A follow-up pulmonary function test in April 2009, revealed only mild COPD with
recent severe asthmatic bronchitis, likely asthma, and probable sleep apnea. (Tr. 25, 320).
The ALJ accounted for Griffth’s physical impairments by limiting her to light work with
The ALJ accounted for her COPD with environmental
restrictions, specifically avoidance of extreme temperatures, odors, dusts, and gases. (Tr. 26).
Finally, he accounted for Griffith’s GERD, which might require frequent bathroom breaks, even
though the evidence showed that the impairment had been resolved with treatment, by restricting
her from working in an environment with stringent production or speed requirements. (Tr. 26).
Griffith identifies no evidence the ALJ overlooked or that contradicts his findings, and
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that her impairments did not render her disabled
prior to her DLI.
Griffith cites the Medical Vocational Guideline (“Grid Rule”) 201.06, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
subpt. P, app. 2, § 201.06, and argues that under this Grid Rule, she would have been found
disabled. 4 (Doc. 12 at 6). First, the ALJ did not reach step five because he found Griffith could
perform her past relevant work, therefore he did not apply a Grid Rule. (Tr. 26). See 20 C.F.R.
§404.1520(a)(4). Only when a claimant proves she cannot perform her past relevant work, must
The Grids allow for consideration of factors such as age, exertional ability, and
educational level. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app 2. The various combinations of these factors
yields a finding of “disabled” or “nondisabled.” When a claimant’s vocational characteristics
coincide with the factors in the Grids, the existence of jobs in the national economy is
established and the Grids direct a conclusion on disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569,
404.1569a; 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2, § 200.00(b).
the Commissioner produce evidence that other work exists that the claimant could perform given
her RFC and other vocational characteristics. See Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 n.2
(11th Cir. 2001); Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). The ALJ was not
required to proceed to step five once he found Griffith was disabled at step four. 20 C.F.R.
404.1520(a)(4). Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s findings.
For the reasons set forth herein, and upon careful consideration of the administrative
record and memoranda of the parties, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
denying Griffith’s claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits is
AFFIRMED and this action DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
DONE this11th day of March 2016.
JOHN H. ENGLAND, III
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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