Briggs v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 9/28/17. (MRR, )
2017 Sep-28 PM 04:16
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MICHAEL D. BRIGGS,
Case No. 2:16-cv-01144-SGC
The plaintiff, Michael Briggs, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental
Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Doc. 1). Mr. Briggs 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).
For the reasons that follow, the
Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.
FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Briggs was fifty-five years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's
("ALJ's") decision. (R. 27). He has a high school education and speaks English. (Id.). His past
relevant work experience includes employment as a warehouse worker and a hospital cleaner.
(R. 26). These jobs are classified at the medium exertional level. (Id.). Mr. Briggs actually
performed the position of warehouse worker at a medium level but performed the duties of a
hospital cleaner at a heavy level. (Id.).
The parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
Mr. Briggs claims he became disabled on October 16, 2012, due to diabetes and back
pain. (R. 132, 165). Mr. Briggs applied for SSI benefits on October 29, 2012. (R. 132).2 After
holding a hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s application for SSI on April 4, 2014. (R. 28). Mr.
Briggs requested review by the Appeals Council, arguing the ALJ’s decision was made in error.
(R. 217-220). In his appeal, Plaintiff asked the Appeals Council to consider his entitlement to
DIB, as well. (R. 218). The Appeals Council reviewed Plaintiff’s claims as to both DIB and
SSI, adopted the ALJ’s findings and conclusions, and found Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 4-6).
Plaintiff’s appeal to this court seeks reversal of the Commissioner’s decision and an award of
both SSI and DIB. (Doc. 11 at 4-5, 10-11).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations
prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920;
Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination
whether the claimant is performing SGA. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is
engaged in SGA, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not
engaged in SGA, the Commissioner proceeds to consider the combined effects of all the
claimant's physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
These impairments must be severe and must meet durational requirements before a claimant will
be found disabled. Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v.
Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the
analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis
continues to step three, at which the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's
impairments meet the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairments fall within
Plaintiff made no mention of DIB in his application for benefits. (R. 132).
this category, the claimant will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If the
impairments do not fall within the listings, the Commissioner determines the claimant's residual
functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent the claimant
from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the
claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation
stops. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth
step, at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age,
education, and past work experience to determine whether he or she can perform other work.
Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, he or
she is not disabled. Id.
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Mr. Briggs had not engaged in
SGA during the relevant time period. (R. 23). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered
from the severe impairment of lumbar degenerative disc disease with facet arthropathy. (Id.).
The ALJ found Plaintiff also suffered from the nonsevere impairments of diabetes and
hypertension. (R. 23-24). The ALJ noted Mr. Briggs was diagnosed with arthritis by an
ophthalmologist in October 2012, but concluded this impairment was not medically determinable
because the diagnosis was not supported by objective tests or symptoms and appeared to be
“based solely on the claimant’s subjective complaints.” (R. 24).
At step three, the ALJ found Mr. Briggs did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 24). The ALJ specifically found Plaintiff’s condition did not meet
Listing 1.04 for a disorder of the spine because he did not have evidence of (1) nerve root
compression in a neuro-anatomic distribution with motor, sensory, or reflex loss; (2) spinal
arachnoiditis confirmed by an operative note or pathology report; or (3) lumbar spinal stenosis
resulting in pseudoclaudication with an inability to ambulate effectively, as defined in Listing
1.00(B)(2)(b). (R. 24). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the
RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), except he was able to
“frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs and may
occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.” (R. 24-26).
At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work. (R.
26-28). Because Mr. Briggs’s RFC did not allow for the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ
relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") as evidence for finding a significant
number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (Id.). The ALJ concluded by
finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 28).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A 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)).
Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable
person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520,
1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
A 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, a 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. 2004)). "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 a 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 at 1529).
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
Mr. Briggs asserts the ALJ's decisionis not based on substantial evidence and should be
reversed and remanded. (Doc. 11). Specifically, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erroneously concluded
he is capable of medium level work because she failed to obtain a medical source opinion or
properly consider the evidence of Mr. Briggs’s impairments. (Id. at 6-9).
Plaintiff, the ALJ’s duty to develop the record includes obtaining a consultative examination.
(Id. at 7) (citing Reeves v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 519 (11th Cir. 1984)). Plaintiff relies on Reeves for
the proposition that the ALJ should have obtained independent evidence before concluding he
was capable of performing medium exertional work.
As an initial matter, the court notes Reeves merely states that when a claimant presents
“substantial credible evidence” of limitations, the ALJ should obtain independent evidence
before rejecting the claimant’s position. Reeves, 734 at 525-26. Here, the ALJ concluded Mr.
Briggs’s lumbar disc degeneration was severe and he suffered several limitations which impacted
his RFC. However, it is the responsibility of the ALJ, not any doctor, to determine a claimant’s
RFC. See SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, *1-2 (Jul. 2, 1996) (medical source opinions should not
be ignored, but issues such as the nature and severity of an individual’s impairments and whether
his RFC prevents past relevant work are dispositive administrative findings reserved to the
Commissioner). Thus, the absence of a consultative medical examination does not render an
ALJ’s decision invalid. Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1281 (no consultative examination is required
when the record contains sufficient information for the ALJ to render a decision); Robinson v.
Astrue, 365 Fed. App’x 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing SSR 96-5p in affirming ALJ’s denial of
benefits where, though ALJ declined to obtain consultative examination, ALJ had substantial
evidence in the record to determine claimant’s impairments, RFC, and ability to work).
The ALJ considered the following testimony from Mr. Briggs. Plaintiff testified he could
not work because of the “pain and positions that his back leaves him in.” (R. 25). Mr. Briggs
has trouble putting his shoes on and bending down because his back “locks up,” and sometimes
he cannot sit back or lift. (Id.). Plaintiff uses a cane that is not prescribed, and it helps with his
back pain. (Id.). Mr. Briggs takes hydrocodone for pain, which “takes the edge off,” but never
stops the pain, and he is unable to perform most daily activities. (Id.).
The ALJ found Mr. Briggs’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause his alleged symptoms, but his statements concerning the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely credible. (R. 25). For example, Plaintiff’s
function report indicates he is able to walk up and down the street for exercise, has no problems
with personal care, prepares simple meals, and does the laundry. (R. 25, 173-180). Further, the
first time Mr. Briggs complained of back pain was during an examination in June 2013; an
examination in November 2012 revealed no muscular or joint deformities and no tenderness in
his back. (R. 25, 231). The ALJ considered the results of Mr. Briggs’s 2013 hospital visits,
including a finding of disc space obliteration and degenerative disc disease. (Id.); see also (R.
249-252) (notes from June and July 2013 examinations at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital).
Plaintiff indicated his pain was under control with a Lortab prescription during his June 2013
visit. (R. 25, 250).
The court finds the evidence reviewed by the ALJ included “more than a scintilla” of
evidence in support of her decision. Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. There was sufficient
evidence to conclude Mr. Briggs had adequate pain management, a relatively recent onset of
reported back pain, a wide range of physical activities, and no abnormalities in his test results or
physical examinations which would suggest major limitations beyond those determined by the
ALJ. Because there was sufficient evidence upon which to base a determination of Mr. Briggs’s
RFC and ability to perform past relevant work, the ALJ was not required to obtain a consultative
Although Mr. Briggs’s testimony about his own limitations and back pain
contradicted some of the record evidence, the ALJ clearly reviewed all the evidence and cited
valid reasons for concluding Plaintiff’s testimony was not entirely credible. Accordingly, the
court concludes the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Mr. Briggs’s arguments,
the undersigned finds the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is in
accord with applicable law. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed. A
separate order will be entered.
DONE this 28th day of September, 2017.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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