Sanders 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 Sanderss 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 9/23/2016. (KEK)
2016 Sep-23 PM 02:38
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Case Number: 2:15-cv-00235-JHE
Plaintiff Sheila Sanders (“Sanders”) 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). Sanders timely pursued and exhausted her
administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the
Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
I. Factual and Procedural History
Sanders filed her application for a period of disability and DIB in June 2011, alleging she
became unable to work beginning May 13, 2009. (Tr. 141). Sanders was a forty-eight year old
female on May 1, 2013, her date of hearing. (Tr. 27). Sanders has at least a high school
education and past relevant work as a materials handler. (Tr. 16, 62-63, 181-184). 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 Sanders’ application, and Sanders requested a hearing where she appeared in
May 2013. (Tr. 31-51). After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied
Sanders’ claim on August 1, 2013. (Tr. 9-18). Sanders sought review by the Appeals Council,
but it declined her request on December 9, 2014. (Tr. 1-4). On that date, the ALJ’s decision
became the final decision of the Commissioner. On July 16, 2015, Sanders initiated this action.
(See doc. 11).
II. Standard of Review2
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
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
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
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 Sanders last met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act on December 31, 2014 (her date last insured or “DLI”), and that Sanders had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of May 13, 2009, through her
DLI. (Tr. 11). At Step Two, the ALJ found Sanders has the following severe impairments:
hypertension; chronic kidney disease, stage 2; obesity; lumbar and cervical degenerative disc
disease; cervical radiculopathy; headaches; and right foot plantar fasciitis (20 CFR 404.1520(c)
and 416.920(c)). (Tr. 11). At Step Three, the ALJ found Sanders 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. 12).
Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Sanders’ 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, Sanders had the RFC to perform
sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a), except Sanders can push and pull with the
upper and lower extremities bilaterally frequently; can frequently climb ramps and stairs and
balance; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and
crawl; can frequently reach overhead on the left side; can handle and finger frequently
bilaterally; can have occasional exposure to extreme heat and cold, and should have no more
than occasional exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous, moving machinery. (Tr. 12-16).
At Step Four, the ALJ determined, through the date last insured, Sanders is unable to perform
any past relevant work. (Tr. 16). At Step Five, the ALJ determined, based on Sanders’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy
Sanders could perform, including cashier, surveillance system monitor, and document preparer.
(Tr. 17). Therefore, the ALJ determined Sanders has not been under a disability and denied
Sanders’s claim. (Tr. 18).
Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence or if 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).
Sanders contends the ALJ did not properly assess the credibility of her testimony
consistent with the Eleventh Circuit Pain Standard. (Doc. 11 at 5). When a claimant attempts to
establish disability based on subjective complaints, including pain, she must provide evidence of
an underlying medical condition and either objective medical evidence confirming the severity of
the alleged symptoms or that the medical condition could be reasonably expected to give rise to
the alleged symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929; SSR 96-7p, 1996-374186. If the
claimant establishes she has an impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce her
alleged symptoms, then the intensity and persistence of her alleged symptoms and their effect on
her work must be evaluated. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(1), 416.929(c)(1).
When evaluating the credibility of a claimant’s statements regarding the intensity,
persistence, or limiting effects of her symptoms, the ALJ considers all evidence, objective and
subjective. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929; SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 364186 at * 4-5. The
ALJ may consider the nature of a claimant’s symptoms, the effectiveness of medication, a
claimant’s method of treatment, a claimant’s activities, and any conflicts between a claimant’s
statements and the rest of the evidence. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), (4), 416.929(c)(3), (4);
SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 364186 at * 4-8. If an ALJ discredits a claimant’s subjective complaints,
“he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Wilson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002). “[I]f a credibility determination is inadequate, a remand
to the agency for further consideration is the proper remedy.” Carpenter v. Astrue, No. 8:10CV-290-T-TGW, 2011 WL 767652 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 25, 2011). See also Lawton v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 431 F. App’x 830, 835 (11th Cir. 2011) (retreating from MacGregor v. Bowen, 786
F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986), based on the prior precedent rule, and remanding to the
agency). After considering the evidence presented, the ALJ found Sanders’s impairments could
cause the alleged symptoms; however, the ALJ found her statements were not credible.
Sanders takes issue with the ALJ’s determination her complaints of debilitating back pain
were not credible, his interpretation of her daily activities, and his finding she made inconsistent
statements relating to her disability. (Doc. 11 at 7-10).
Sanders begins by citing the ALJ’s conclusions that low back pain and lumbar and
cervical radiculopathy limited her ability to reach, handle, and finger and prevented her from
doing anything beyond sedentary work, and describes those conclusions as “basically f[inding]
the Plaintiff’s medical history is inconsistent with her allegations of disability.” (Id. at 6). She
then cites her “longitudinal history of complaints of and treatment for her chronic moderately
severe back pain” and summarizes that history, concluding “[t]he ALJ erred in refusing to
properly credit the objective medical evidence and treatment notes when finding the Plaintiff was
capable of sedentary work.” (Id. at 6-8). However, while a longitudinal history will “generally
lend support to an individual’s allegations,” SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186 at *7 (S.S.A. July 2,
1996), it is certainly not dispositive of the issue, especially where there is also substantial
evidence in the record undermining credibility. Similarly, although the existence of objective
medical diagnoses can support her complaints, they are not themselves indicative of disabling
pain or inability to work. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1213 n.6 (11th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he
mere existence of these impairments does not reveal the extent to which they limit her ability to
work or undermine the ALJ’s determination in that regard”). The ALJ looked at all of the same
objective evidence Sanders cites and, considering the other subjective evidence in light of the
evidence regarding credibility, concluded she was limited to sedentary work with other specific
limitations, instead of totally disabled. (Tr. 14-15).4 Sanders cannot establish error merely by
citing the same evidence and stating a different conclusion.
Next, contrary to Sanders’s implication, the ALJ can rely on inconsistencies between
The medical evidence also supports a finding of obesity, which the ALJ considered in
his decision and noted can exacerbate subjective complaints of pain. (Tr. 14). The ALJ
explicitly considered her obesity in limiting her work to the sedentary level of exertion. (Id.).
Sanders’s reported activities of daily living and her complaints of disabling pain as evidence of
her lack of credibility. See Hughes v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F. App’x 11, 14-16 (11th Cir.
2012) (finding the ALJ’s credibility articulation adequate based in part on the contrast between
her statements of extreme limitation and her less limited activities of daily living). Sanders’s
contrary citations do not indicate otherwise. In Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436 (11th Cir.
1997), the court found the “everyday activities of short duration” did not disqualify the claimant
from disability and were not “inconsistent with the limitations recommended by [the claimant]’s
Id. at 1441.
Nothing in Lewis prevents an ALJ from finding such
inconsistencies between the everyday activities and limitations suggested by the claimant or her
doctors. See Hughes, 486 F. App’x at 14-16. But see Horton v. Barnhart, 469 F. Supp. 2d 1041,
1047 (N.D. Ala. 2006) (reversing the ALJ after noting his reliance on the claimant’s activities
but failure to acknowledge her limiting descriptions of them). While the discrepancies are not
dispositive of disability, their inconsistency with subjective statements may indicate Sanders’s
pain is not as limiting as she has alleged.
The question is whether the cited activities are truly inconsistent with the claimed
disability. In a short paragraph, the ALJ noted Sanders’s reports of daily activities at the hearing
and in her function report. (Tr. 15-16). In that evidence, Sanders reported she was able to cook
simple meals (between two and eighteen minutes at a time), shop for groceries for an hour or two
twice a month, drive, fold and put away laundry once a month, take care of her personal care and
hygiene (with help from one of her daughters getting dressed), and care for her disabled daughter
with cerebral palsy (with help from the other daughter). (Tr. 53-54, 56, 174-76). It is not clear
how these are inconsistent with her claims of needing to rest for six hours during the day or
regularly (but not constantly) having extreme pain that would prevent her from maintaining
employment. The cited evidence does not support the ALJ’s finding of inconsistency. See
Horton, 469 F. Supp. 2d at 1047.
However, the ALJ did not err by voicing his concern over Sanders’s inconsistent
statements about her back condition. The ALJ may consider any conflicts or inconsistencies
between a claimant’s testimony and the rest of the evidence. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1529(c)(4),
416.929(c)(4). During an examination with Dr. William Meador, Sanders stated she was using a
wheelchair for six months after the 2008 fall to complete daily activities.
(Tr. 16, 260).
However, in 2008, Sanders denied any ambulatory problems to Dr. Vrocher after the work place
fall. (Tr. 198). When questioned about it at her ALJ hearing, Sanders retracted the wheelchair
statement and testified she used only a motorized cart while grocery shopping. (Tr. 16, 55).
Sanders contends the ALJ did not properly consider her “clear explanation” of the discrepancy,
(doc. 11 at 10), but the ALJ explicitly considered her explanation and found that, even if the
inconsistent information were not intentionally misleading, it suggested “that the information
provided by the claimant generally may not be entirely reliable,” (tr. 16). The ALJ properly
considered Sanders’s inconsistent statements and her explanation when determining her
Regardless, even though Sanders’s challenges to the ALJ’s decision do not establish
grounds for reversal or remand, the Court must still consider whether there is substantial
evidence to support the ALJ’s conclusions.5 The undersigned finds there is.
First, the ALJ found the records did not support Sanders’s allegations of debilitating
Sanders also briefly states the ALJ “failed to fully and fairly develop the record, but she
does not further develop the argument beyond that single sentence. (Doc. 11 at 10). It is unclear
what issue is underdeveloped or where there are unfair holes in the record. Having offered no
argument to clarify the issue, she has abandoned this claim. See Hutchinson v. Astrue, 408 F.
App’x 324, 326 n.1 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Davis v. Jones, 506 F.3d 1325, 1330 n.8 (11th Cir.
headaches four times a month. (Tr. 15). Although he acknowledged she had complained of
headaches to her doctors, he noted it was “off and on since approximately 2007,” they were
treated with over-the-counter medication, and, despite alleging her headaches were a nine out of
ten on the pain scale four times a month, she did not mention them to Dr. Meador during her
disability examination. (Id.) (citing tr. 227-63).
Regarding her back pain, the evidence shows the claimant initially complained of lower
back pain after a work-related fall in January of 2008. (Tr. 14, 198-199). A magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) revealed a large right-sided L5-S1 disc herniation, and Sanders received epidural
pain blocks to treat the pain. (Tr. 209-212). In February 2009, Sanders was involved in a motor
vehicle accident. (Tr. 14-15, 217). Sanders’s x-rays showed no fracture and normal alignment
and soft tissues. (Tr. 14-15, 218). In April 2009, Sanders obtained an MRI revealing suspicions
of a small disc herniation at C5-C6 with very minimal disc bulging noted at C4-C5 and C6-C7.
(Tr. 14, 226). In October 2009, Sanders visited the emergency room with a complaint of fever.
(Tr. 247). Dr. Mosier found that Sanders had lower back pain, yet Sanders had a full range of
motion and straight leg raises were normal. (Tr. 247-49). In February 2010, Sanders visited
Dr. Martin Bohnenkamp for a check-up but made no mention of her back condition. (Tr. 245).
In October 2011, in connection with Sanders’s application for disability, she submitted to
a physical examination. (Tr. 15, 259-63). Sanders complained of spurs in her neck and lower
(Tr. 15, 259).
She had normal muscle strength except for a 4/5 in her right
quadriceps. (Tr. 15, 262). She had tenderness to palpation the lumbar spine and positive straight
leg raise on her right leg with tingling in her right foot. (Tr. 262). Sanders was diagnosed with
low back pain, lumbar radiculopathy, and cervical radiculopathy by the attending physician, Dr.
Meador. (Tr. 263). Because of Sanders’s cervical radiculopathy, the ALJ recognized limitations
in Sanders’s ability to reach, handle, and finger in her residual functional capacity. (Tr. 15). The
ALJ also acknowledged the consistency in Sanders’s complaints and found Sanders exertion to
be limited to the sedentary level. (Id.).
With respect to Sanders’s hypertension, she was diagnosed in 2007 and has been taking
medicine for it since. (Tr. 234, 237, 242). While taking her medicine, Sanders’s hypertension is
well controlled. (Tr. 239, 242, 245). As a result, the ALJ found Sanders capable of having
occasional exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous, moving machinery but can never
climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Tr. 14).
In relation to Sanders chronic kidney disease, the evidence demonstrates Sanders’s had
stage four kidney disease in February of 2010. (Tr. 30, 245). However, by February of 2011,
Sanders’s kidney disease digressed to stage three. (Tr. 30, 227). Furthermore, in November of
2012, Sanders’s kidney disease was stated to be stage two and “stable.” (Tr. 30, 239, 242,
265-67). At the hearing, Sanders only complained the kidney disease made her tired and need to
go the bathroom more often. (Tr. 40). The ALJ considered these impairments in finding
Sanders capable of sedentary level exertion. (Tr. 14).
Considering the record as a whole, 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 Sanders’s claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits is
AFFIRMED and this action DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
DONE this 23rd day of September, 2016.
JOHN H. ENGLAND, III
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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