Jimerson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION that Commissioner's final decision should be affirmed. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 4/27/2016. (YMB)
2016 Apr-27 AM 09:02
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
GARY ONEAL JIMERSON,
Civil Action Number
Gary Jimerson brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of the final adverse
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). This
court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal
standard and that his decision – which has become the decision of the
Commissioner – is supported by substantial evidence.
Therefore, the court
AFFIRMS the decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Jimerson, whose past relevant work history includes work as a diagnostic
technician, a statement clerk, a teller, a unit clerk, an assistant manager, a patient
care assistant, an insurance customer service representative, and an account
coordinator, filed his application for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on
October 17, 2011, and his application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on
October 20, 2011. (R. 13). In both applications, Jimerson alleged a disability
onset date of October 17, 2011, due to a cervical herniated disc in the neck,
anxiety, severe depression, extreme panic level anxiety, and moderate level
(R. 13, 155).
After the SSA denied his application, Jimerson
requested a hearing before an ALJ.
The ALJ subsequently denied
Jimerson’s claim, (R. 10), which became the final decision of the Commissioner
when the Appeals Council refused to grant review, (R. 1-4). Jimerson then filed
this action pursuant to §205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Doc. 1.
II. Standard of Review
The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial
evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, see 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Walden v.
Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the
correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988);
Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§405(g)
and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if
supported by ‘substantial evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
(11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the
evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must
review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “reasonable
and supported by substantial evidence.” See id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler,
703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a
preponderance of evidence; “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person
would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529
(quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by
substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings
even if the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner’s findings.
See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review
of the ALJ’s findings is limited in scope, it notes that the review “does not yield
automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.
III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To qualify 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 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. §416(I). A physical or mental
impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3).
Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20
Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in
whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative
answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps
three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other
than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (citing 20
C.F.R. §416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to
prior work the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can
do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Jimerson had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 17, 2011, the alleged onset
date, and therefore met Step One. (R. 15). Next, the ALJ found that Jimerson
satisfied Step Two because he suffered from the “severe” impairments of cervical
degenerative disc disease status post cervical fusion at C3-4 and C5-6, thoracic
degenerative disc disease, depression, panic disorder, and pain disorder. Id. The
ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that Jimerson did not satisfy Step
Three since he “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.” (R. 16).
Although the ALJ answered Step Three in the negative, consistent with the law,
see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, he proceeded to Step Four, where he determined
that Jimerson has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform sedentary work . . . except [Jimerson] can occasionally push
and pull bilaterally with the upper extremities . . . . can climb ramps
and stairs and balance frequently . . . . can never climb ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds . . . . [and] can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and
crawl . . . . [Jimerson] can have occasional exposure to excessive
vibration but can have no exposure to hazardous moving machinery or
unprotected heights. [Jimerson] can understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions for two hour periods and with normal breaks
can complete an eight hour workday. [Jimerson] requires a job that is
low stress in nature . . . . [and has] occasional interaction with the
public and coworkers with no tandem tasks required.
(R. 17-18). In light of Jimerson’s RFC, the ALJ determined that Jimerson “is
unable to perform any of his past relevant work.” (R. 21). Lastly, in Step Five, the
ALJ considered Jimerson’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, and
determined that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that [Jimerson] can perform.” (R. 22). Therefore, the ALJ found that
Jimerson had “not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from October 17, 2011, through the date of [the ALJ] decision.” (R.23).
Jimerson raises multiple contentions of error which the court will outline and
address below. None of these contentions, however, establishes that the ALJ
committed reversible error. Therefore, the court will affirm the ALJ’s decision.
1. Allegation that the ALJ Failed to Consider All of Jimerson’s Limitations
Jimerson raises two contentions of error related to his limitations. First,
Jimerson asserts that the ALJ’s “RFC assessment is devoid of any restrictions
regarding [his] limited neck flexion, neck extension, and neck rotation.” See doc. 9
at 4. According to Jimerson, the ALJ only considered the limitations related to his
thoracic degenerative disc disease, depression, panic disorder, and pain disorder,
and failed to consider his cervical degenerative disc disease status post fusion at
C3-4 and C5-6. See id. at 4.1 The court disagrees, in part, because “[s]tep two is a
threshold inquiry” to weed out obvious non-meritorious claims for which “[t]he
claimant’s burden is mild.” McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1031. Therefore, the ALJ did
not err solely because he did not articulate limitation(s) specific to an impairment
Jimerson does not appeal the ALJ’s decision regarding his mental impairments;
therefore, the scope of this review is limited to the ALJ’s decision regarding Jimerson’s physical
impairments both singularly and in combination.
he found severe at Step Two. See Walters v. Barnhart, 184 F. Supp. 2d 1178, 1184
(M.D. Ala. 2001) (asserting that a finding that an impairment is severe “is not
tantamount to a conclusion that these impairments imposed significant workrelated limitations”); Dowdy v. Barnhart, 2005 WL 3841868, at *4 (M.D. Ala. Jan
4, 2005) (concluding that a severe impairment will not necessarily impose
“significant work-related limitations” for purposes of RFC).
Jimerson’s contentions regarding his RFC also fail because the record is
clear that the ALJ considered all of Jimerson’s impairments. Specifically, the ALJ
found that Jimerson suffered from two severe physical impairments at Step Two
and proceeded to offer an RFC assessment that outlined the effect of both
impairments. Among other things, the ALJ noted that in April 2012, Jimerson’s
treating physician, Dr. Martin Jones, released Jimerson back to work as a senior
account representative at State Farm Insurance despite Jimerson’s continued
complaints post-surgery of “decreased range of motion because of the cervical
fusions,” “some pain,” and “some degree of stiffness,” (R. 371-372, 451), and that
the state medical consultant, Dr. Robert Heilpern, opined that Jimerson’s neck
surgery and ongoing complaints of pain and stiffness posed minimal restrictions on
Jimerson’s ability to perform light work, (R. 351-358).
Despite the medical
evidence, before assessing Jimerson’s RFC, the ALJ provided Jimerson an
opportunity to develop the record at the hearing. In response, Jimerson only
described limited restrictions in his daily activities, see, e.g., (R. 33-36, 38-43),
stating that his pain is located “in the middle of my back which is the thoracic
spine, my lower back, and I have the numbness and tingling in my left and right
arm,” (R. 33), and that turning his neck from side to side “would cause stiffness in
my neck, and some pain, and a pulling sensation . . . ,” (R. 36). Based on this
testimony, despite the medical opinion that Jimerson is capable of performing light
work, the ALJ limited Jimerson to sedentary work instead. See (R. 21) (stating that
he “reduced [Jimerson’s] exertional level to sedentary,” “due to [his] consistent
complaints of pain.”). Because “there is no rigid requirement that the [ALJ]
specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision, so long as [the court
can] conclude [that] the [ALJ] considered [Jimerson’s] medical condition as a
whole,” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec., 783 F.3d 847, 852 (11th Cir.
2015), the ALJ’s finding is sufficient to establish that the ALJ properly considered
all of Jimerson’s physical impairments in concluding that Jimerson is capable of
performing sedentary work. See Heatly v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 382 F. App’x.
823, 825-26 (11th Cir. 2010); Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir.
Next, as his second contention of error related to his limitations, Jimerson
asserts that the ALJ’s hypothetical questions to the vocational expert failed to
include a correct and full statement of his limitations. See doc. 9 at 12. The
standard for hypothetical questions requires the ALJ to include only the limitations
that are supported by the record, and the ALJ is not required to include findings
that he has properly rejected. See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229 (11th Cir.
1999); Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1161 (11th Cir. 2004).
The record here reflects that the hypothetical questions to the VE covered all of the
appropriate limitations from Jimerson’s RFC.
See (R. 18, 22-23, 47-53).
Therefore, in light of the court’s finding that the record provides no support for
Jimerson’s initial contention that the ALJ failed to incorporate all of his
impairments in his RFC assessment, the court finds no reversible error on this
2. Allegation that the ALJ Failed to Consider the Severity and Impact of
Jimerson’s Obesity, in Combination with His Other Impairments
Finally, Jimerson alleges that the ALJ failed to consider his obesity and the
potentially exacerbating effects it may have on his other musculoskeletal
impairments. See doc. 9 at 15-19. The evidence demonstrates that, at all relevant
times, Jimerson’s height (5’11”) and weight (259 pounds) values, see doc. 9 at 1718, quantify him as obese according to his BMI calculation. (R. 271, 336, 570).
Still, evidence of a diagnosis or a mere showing of departure from medical
standards of bodily perfection or normality is insufficient to establish a disabling
See McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1547 (11th Cir. 1986).
Instead, the record must demonstrate that Jimerson’s obesity affects his ability to
In making such an assessment, the court “will not make
assumptions about the severity or functional effects of obesity combined with other
impairments” because the combination “may not increase the severity or functional
limitations of the other impairments.”
Rather, when evaluating
obesity in assessing RFC, the likelihood of obesity limiting function will depend
on a variety of factors “such as sitting, standing, walking lifting, carrying, pushing,
and pulling, . . . climbing, balancing, stooping, and crouching.” Id. Finally, “there
is no rigid requirement that the [ALJ] specifically refer to every piece of evidence
in his decision, so long as [the court can] conclude [that] the [ALJ] considered
[Jimerson’s] medical condition as a whole.” Parks ex rel. D.P., 783 F.3d at 852.
In fact, “conclusory statements by an ALJ to the effect that the combined effects of
a claimant’s impairments are not sufficiently severe to rise to the level of disability
are sufficient to demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of a claimant’s
impairments singly and in combination.” Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1076
(11th Cir. 1986); see also Jones v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 941 F.2d
1529, 1533 (11th Cir. 1991); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1224-25 (11th
There is no reversible error here because, as Jimerson concedes, obesity
levels “do not correlate with any specific degree of functional loss.” Doc. 9 at 16.
Also, mere BMI calculation, without evidence demonstrating that Jimerson’s
obesity further restricted his ability to perform the already limited sedentary work,
does not equate to a loss of work-function. The absence of such evidence is
relevant here where the ALJ cites to the same medical records as Jimerson and
limits Jimerson’s work activity according to the suggestions in SSR 02-1p. See (R.
28-21). This suggests that, despite knowledge of Jimerson’s height and weight, the
ALJ reasonably concluded that Jimerson’s obesity did not provide any additional
limitations on his ability to complete work-related activities or have any
documented exacerbating effects on his other severe impairments. Moreover, the
record, which references obesity rarely and in passing, contains no indication that
Jimerson’s obesity exacerbated his physical impairments.
See (R. 331-336)
(including physical evaluation in diagnostic impressions from mental examination
on January 13, 2012); (R. 480) (evaluating Jimerson’s condition pre- and postoperation during hospital stay for second cervical fusion November 21, 2011 to
November 22, 2011); (R. 572) (during stay at UAB Med. West on October 23,
2014). Finally, Jimerson had the opportunity to develop the record but failed to
provide any evidence to support his contention that his obesity further reduced his
already restricted capacity for sedentary work.
circumstances, Jimerson is not entitled to relief.
See (R. 32).
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Jimerson is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ
applied proper legal standards. Therefore, the Commissioner’s final decision is
DONE the 27th day of April, 2016.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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