Wells v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 1/12/2016. (YMB)
2016 Jan-12 AM 10:54
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,
Civil Action Number
Plaintiff Cynthia Wells (“Wells”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
1383(c)(3) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final adverse decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). The court finds
that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal standard and
that his decision—which has become the final decision of the Commissioner—is
supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court AFFIRMS the decision
I. Procedural History
Wells filed her application for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on
September 6, 2012 (R. 277), alleging a disability onset date of June 4, 2012, id.,
due to bi-polar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, (R. 280). After the SSA
denied her application on November 9, 2012 (R. 174–178), Wells requested a
hearing, (R. 179–180). At the time of the hearing on November 12, 2013, Wells
was 50 years old, (R. 121, 128), had a twelfth grade education, and past work
experience as a crown and bridge technician. (R. 280). Wells has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her application date. (R. 123).
The ALJ denied Wells’ claim on December 6, 2013, (R. 118–20), which
became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused
to grant review on March 17, 2015, (R. 1-4). Wells then filed this action pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), on April 30, 2015. 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, 849 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 twelve
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(I)(A). 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
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f). 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).
Lastly, where, as here, a plaintiff alleges disability because of pain, he must
meet additional criteria. In this circuit, “a three part ‘pain standard’ [is applied]
when a claimant seeks to establish disability through his or her own testimony of
pain or other subjective symptoms.” Holt v. Barnhart, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th
Cir. 1991). Specifically,
The 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.1
Id. However, medical evidence of pain itself, or of its intensity, is not required:
While both the regulations and the Hand standard require objective
medical evidence of a condition that could reasonably be expected to
cause the pain alleged, neither requires objective proof of the pain
itself. Thus under both the regulations and the first (objectively
identifiable condition) and third (reasonably expected to cause pain
alleged) parts of the Hand standard a claimant who can show that his
condition could reasonably be expected to give rise to the pain he
alleges has established a claim of disability and is not required to
produce additional, objective proof of the pain itself. See 20 CFR §§
404.1529 and 416.929; Hale [v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th
Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1215 (11th Cir. 1991) (parenthetical
information omitted) (emphasis added). Moreover, “[a] claimant’s subjective
testimony supported by medical evidence that satisfies the pain standard is itself
sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223. Therefore, if
a claimant testifies to disabling pain and satisfies the three part pain standard, the
ALJ must find a disability unless the ALJ properly discredits the claimant’s
Furthermore, when the ALJ fails to credit a claimant’s pain testimony, the
ALJ must articulate reasons for that decision:
This standard is referred to as the Hand standard, named after Hand v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 1545, 1548
(11th Cir. 1985).
It is established in this circuit that if the [ALJ] fails to articulate reasons for
refusing to credit a claimant’s subjective pain testimony, then the [ALJ], as a
matter of law, has accepted that testimony as true. Implicit in this rule is the
requirement that such articulation of reasons by the [ALJ] be supported by
Hale, 831 F.2d at 1012. Therefore, if the ALJ either fails to articulate reasons for
refusing to credit the plaintiff’s pain testimony, or if the ALJ’s reasons are not
supported by substantial evidence, the court must accept as true the pain testimony
of the plaintiff and render a finding of disability. Id.
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the Five Step sequential analysis, the ALJ initially determined
that Wells had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 4, 2012 and
therefore met Step One. (R. 123). Next, the ALJ found that Wells satisfied Step
Two because she suffered from the severe impairments of post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD), anxiety, bi-polar disorder, and arthritis in the hands and left
shoulder. Id. The ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that Wells did not
satisfy Step Three since she “[did] not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments.” (R. 124). 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 Wells has the residual functional capacity (RFC)
[P]erform light work… except she can only occasionally climb ramps
or stairs or reach overhead with her left upper extremity. Further
[Wells] is limited to frequent handling and fingering in her bilateral
hands. She can only perform work that is limited to SVP one through
four tasks that require only occasional interaction with the public and
(R. 126). In light of Wells’ RFC, the ALJ determined that Wells is unable to
perform any past relevant work. (R. 128). Lastly in Step Five, the ALJ considered
Wells’ age, education, work experience, and RFC, and determined “there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Wells] can
perform.” (R. 129). Therefore, the ALJ found that Wells “has not been under a
disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 4, 2012.” (R. 130).
Wells raises multiple contentions of error which the court will outline and
address below. None of these contentions, however, establish that the ALJ
committed reversible error. Therefore, the court will affirm the ALJ’s decision.
1. Alleged failure to accept Wells’ diagnosis of lupus and failing to consider
this condition a severe impairment
In two related contentions, Wells maintains that the ALJ erred by not accepting
her diagnosis of lupus and, instead, determining that she suffered from arthritis,
and also failed to consider this a severe impairment. Doc. 9 at 8. The substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. Specifically, while the medical record
contains evidence that her rheumatologist, Dr. Greg Eudy, had treated Wells for
lupus for the preceding 2 years, (R. 342–395), the record also contains evidence
that Wells had an “apparent recent negative ANA” blood test result, (R. 350),
which raised doubt regarding the accuracy of the lupus diagnosis, (R. 124).
However, rather than using the negative ANA test to decide that Wells did not
suffer from an impairment, the ALJ stated that he would instead analyze Wells’
“joint complaints under the severe impairment of arthritis of hands and shoulder.”
(R. 124). The substantial evidence supports this decision because, as the ALJ
stated, the record contained no definitive diagnosis of lupus. As a result, the ALJ in
his analysis noted that Dr. Eudy had included lupus as one of Wells’ impairments
while also noting the need for retesting to confirm the diagnosis. (R. 124).
To the extent the ALJ erred, the error is harmless because there is nothing in the
record to establish that the lupus diagnosis qualified as a severe or disabling
impairment. See, e.g., Sellers v. Barnhart, 246 F. Supp. 2d 1201, 1211 (M.D. Ala.
2002) (holding that the specific diagnosis “is an insufficient basis for a finding that
the impairment is severe” and the “objective medical evidence must confirm that
the impairment is severe.”). Moreover, the severity of an impairment “must be
measured in terms of its effect upon ability to work, and not simply in terms of
deviation from purely medical standards of bodily perfection or normality.”
McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1547 (11th Cir. 1988). Here, the evidence
demonstrates that the ALJ correctly found that Wells’ impairments did not rise to
the level of severity necessary for a disability finding. In reaching his decision, the
ALJ first discussed Wells’ sparse treatment record during the applicable period,
pointing out that although Wells had health insurance through her employer, Wells
did not begin receiving treatment until one year after the alleged onset date. (R.
127). Even then, Wells only sought limited treatment—one visit with a primary
care doctor, and four visits over the course of two years with a rheumatologist. (R.
127, 345–357). Moreover, at each of these appointments, although Wells displayed
limited range of motion in her left shoulder, she had “full sensation and power in
all of her extremities.” (R. 127). The ALJ concluded that this sparse record simply
did not support finding that Wells’ joint conditions rose to the level of severity
required for a finding of disability. (R. 124–125).
In reaching this finding, the ALJ also relied on the functional evaluation of the
severity of Wells’ joint impairment he performed. Based on assessments conducted
by Wells and Ginger George, a friend who spends a minimum of two hours a day
with Wells, the ALJ found that Wells had only mild restrictions in her daily living
activities, (R. 124), noting that Wells lives alone and is able to prepare meals, do
household chores, and tend to her own personal care, (R. 124). This assessment is
consistent with George’s, who stated that other than the fact that Wells must be
“reminded to bathe,” “encouraged to dress,” and “reminded to eat,” (R. 306), Wells
“is able to pick up, but needs help cleaning. [They] do laundry together twice a
week” and “pick up/straighten throughout the day to lessen anxiety,” (R. 307).
Significantly, George’s assessment is silent on Wells’ physical pain and focuses on
Wells’ anxiety. (R. 302–312). The anxiety focus is consistent with Wells’ own
function report, which is also silent on her allegedly disabling physical pain and
contains mostly complaints of mood swings and difficulty sleeping at night. (R.
295–301). Ultimately, while daily activities do not necessarily undermine
assertions of disability, the ALJ is allowed to look at the aggregate of activity, as
well as Wells’ own prior testimony, in ascertaining whether the record is
inconsistent with a finding of disability. See generally, Johnson v. Barnhart, 268 F.
Supp.2d 1317 (M.D. Fla. 2002).
Based on this record, the court finds that the substantial evidence supports the
ALJ conclusion that while Wells suffers from pain due to a joint condition that is a
severe impairment, it nonetheless did not rise to the severity level required for a
disability finding. Therefore, the ALJ’s decision is due to be affirmed.
2. Alleged failure to consider and weigh the opinion of the treating physician
Wells contends next that the ALJ erred in giving more weight to the opinion of
the consultative examining physician, instead of Wells’ treating physician’s. See
doc. 9 at 11. Wells is correct that the opinion of a treating physician is generally
entitled to more weight than a consulting physician’s. Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d
513, 518 (11th Cir. 1984). Moreover, the “report of a consulting physician who
examined a claimant once does not constitute ‘substantial evidence’ upon the
record as a whole, especially when contradicted by the evaluation of the claimant’s
treating physician.” Kent v. Sullivan, 788 F. Supp. 541, 544 (N.D. Ala. 1992). Still,
despite these general principles of law, reversal is not warranted here because the
ALJ did not ignore the opinion of Wells’ treating physician. While Wells
emphasizes that her treating physician indicated that Wells was at a high risk for
disability and morbidity due to her health conditions, doc. 9 at 11, critically, Wells
points to no evidence that Dr. Eudy actually considered her disabled at the time of
her application, id. at 12. Also, although Dr. Eudy’s treatment notes state that
Wells is at risk for disability due to lupus, (R. 347, 350, 353, 357), this statement is
in conflict with his notation of a negative ANA test, (R. 350). Furthermore, Dr.
Eudy’s notes also show that he was not entirely certain of the lupus diagnosis and
was exploring alternative diagnoses for the pain in Wells’ shoulder by referring
Wells to an orthopedist for a possible rotator cuff tear or bursitis. (R. 347).
Ultimately, although the treatment notes establish Dr. Eudy’s treatment plan as
it related to Wells’ pain and lupus diagnosis, they fall far short of constituting an
opinion supporting a finding that Wells is disabled. At most, Dr. Eudy’s notes are
“a prediction about the plaintiff’s future condition,” see Moody v. Barnhart, 295 F.
Supp. 2d 1278, 1285 (N.D. Ala. 2003), and as such do not support a finding of a
current disability. Furthermore, this court’s review of the record finds that it is
devoid of any evidence that Dr. Eudy or any other treating physician considered
Wells disabled as a result of her impairments, much less that their opinions
conflicted with the ALJ’s decision. See generally, Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703
F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983). Accordingly, the court finds no error in the
ALJ’s decision to disregard Dr. Eudy’s prediction about Wells’ future condition.
3. Alleged failure to rely on substantial evidence in rejecting Wells’ testimony
regarding her pain and mental limitations
Wells also argues that the ALJ failed to rely on substantial evidence in
dismissing her subjective testimony of her pain and mental limitations. Where the
ALJ discredits subjective testimony, he must “articulate explicit and express
reasons for doing so.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002)
(per curiam). A failure to do so requires that the testimony be accepted as true. Id.
(citing Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir. 1988)). As shown below,
because the ALJ articulated his reasons for discrediting Wells’ subjective
complaints, the court rejects Wells’ contentions. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d
1553, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam) (“a clearly articulated credibility finding
with substantial supporting evidence in the record will not be disturbed by a
Specifically, as it relates to Wells’ pain testimony, the ALJ found that while
the medical records supported Wells’ testimony regarding the presence of pain, it
did not support her statements regarding the “intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of these symptoms.” (R. 126). To support this determination, the ALJ
articulated multiple reasons. First, the ALJ pointed out that although Wells had
health insurance when she purportedly started experiencing the disabling pain, “she
did not begin receiving regular treatment for her physical complaints until… one
year after her alleged onset date.” (R. 127). Second, even when Wells began to
complain to her primary care physician about pain and range of motion in her left
shoulder, as the ALJ noted, Wells still had full sensation in her extremities. Id.
Finally, the ALJ noted that Wells sought treatment that was fairly limited in scope,
which belied Wells’ contentions of disabling or substantially limiting pain. Id.
These articulated reasons are supported by the record and provide a sufficient basis
for the ALJ to reject Wells’ pain testimony.
Next, with respect to Wells’ mental impairments, the ALJ pointed out first
that while in the beginning of her treatment, Wells had difficulty concentrating, by
the end of 2012, “[Wells] was reporting reduced anxiety and she continued to
display normal objective signs during her mental status examinations.” Id. The
ALJ then noted that since Wells’ alleged onset date, “[Wells] has consistently been
able to independently tend to her personal care and she has remained independent,
living by herself in a house. She independently performs all of her household
chores, she attends multiple Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week, she
regularly visits with friends, and she watches movies and prepares meals.” (R.
128). Finally, the ALJ highlighted the absence of any episodes of decompensation,
noting that, although Wells displayed in June 2012 “impaired concentration and
memory, [she nonetheless] had goal-directed thinking and appropriate grooming,”
and that by the end of 2012, Wells reported to her therapists “reduced anxiety” and
“continued to display normal objective signs during her mental status
examinations.” (R. 127). Based on all these reasons, the ALJ concluded that the
record did not support a finding of disability, that Wells was not as incapacitated as
she alleged, and that “the longitudinal history [did] not bear out a debilitating
degree of functional limitations, such that would eliminate all work on a continuing
basis.” (R. 128).
The substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision that Wells’ medical
records contradicted her subjective testimony. (R. 127–28). In addition to the
reasons cited by the ALJ, as discussed above, notwithstanding Wells’ contention
that she suffered from disabling pain, in both Wells and her friend’s function
reports, there is no mention of disabling pain. (R. 295–301, 302–312). Moreover,
in her application for benefits, Wells limited her inability to work to her bi-polar
and post-traumatic stress disorders, and denied having appointments scheduled to
deal with any physical pain. (R. 287–294). Furthermore, at the hearing, Wells
mentioned for the first time having episodes of delusional thinking or
hallucinations, (R. 148–149), but, as the ALJ noted, a review of the medical record
shows that while there is some memory impairment that has remained consistent
throughout her treatment history, Wells evinced goal directed thinking and
appropriate thoughts, (R. 127). Indeed, the medical record demonstrates that Wells
manifested clear cognition and explicitly denied hallucinations at each medical
appointment. (R. 330–344, 396–404, 405–431). For all these reasons, the court
concludes that the ALJ clearly articulated his reasons for finding Wells not
credible and affirms the ALJ’s credibility determination. See Wilson, 284 F.3d at
1226 (noting that the “ALJ made a reasonable decision to reject [the claimant’s]
subjective testimony, articulating, in detail, the contrary evidence as his reasons for
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Wells is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ applied
proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the
Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance
with the memorandum of decision will be entered.
DONE the 12th day of January, 2016.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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