Jones v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Gray M Borden on 2/17/2021. (KAM)
2021 Feb-17 PM 02:06
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
SHARON JUANITA JONES,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of
Case No. 2:19-cv-1785-GMB
On May 3, 2016, Plaintiff Sharon Juanita Jones filed an application for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Her alleged disability onset date is May 1,
2014. Jones’ application for benefits was denied at the initial administrative level.
She then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The
ALJ held a hearing on August 16, 2018 and partially denied Jones’ claims on
November 15, 2018. Jones requested a review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals
Council, which declined review on September 7, 2019. As a result, the ALJ’s
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (the “Commissioner”) as of September 7, 2019.
Jones’ case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)
and 1383(c)(3). Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure, the parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of a United States
Magistrate Judge. Doc. 14. Based on its review of the parties’ submissions, the
relevant law, and the record as a whole, the court concludes that the decision of the
Commissioner is due to be affirmed.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW 1
The court reviews a Social Security appeal to determine whether the
Commissioner’s decision “is supported by substantial evidence and based upon
proper legal standards.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997).
The court will reverse the Commissioner’s decision if it is convinced that the
decision was not supported by substantial evidence or that the proper legal standards
were not applied. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). The
court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner,” but rather “must defer to the
Commissioner’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater,
84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
“Even if the evidence preponderates against the Secretary’s factual findings, [the
court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.”
In general, the legal standards applied are the same whether a claimant seeks disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”) or 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 excerpted court decisions.
Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). Moreover, reversal is not
warranted even if the court itself would have reached a result contrary to that of the
factfinder. See Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991).
The substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable person would accept
the evidence in the record as adequate to support the challenged conclusion.”
Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1208 (11th Cir. 1988) (quoting Boyd v. Heckler,
704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir. 1983)). The requisite evidentiary showing has been
described as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The court must scrutinize the entire
record to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached and cannot “act as
[an] automaton in reviewing the [Commissioner’s] decision.” Hale v. Bowen, 831
F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus, the court must consider evidence both
favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner’s decision. Swindle v. Sullivan, 914
F.2d 222, 225 (11th Cir. 1990).
The court will reverse the Commissioner’s decision on plenary review if the
decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning
to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Grant v. Astrue, 255
F. App’x 374, 375–76 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Keeton v. Dep’t of Health & Human
Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There is no presumption that the
Commissioner’s conclusions of law are valid. Id.
II. 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) & 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). Jones bears the burden of
proving that she is disabled and is responsible for producing evidence sufficient to
support her claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).
A determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a fivestep analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The Commissioner must determine in
(1) Is the claimant presently unable to engage in substantial gainful
(2) Are the claimant’s impairments severe?
(3) Do the claimant’s impairments satisfy or medically equal one of
the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
(4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform other work given her residual
functional capacity, age, education, and work experience?
See Frame v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 596 F. App’x 908, 910 (11th Cir. 2015).
“An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next
question, or, [at] steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer
to any question, other than at step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’”
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986) (quoting 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920(a)−(f)). “Once the finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior
work the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can
do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Gibson v. Heckler,
762 F.2d 1516 (11th Cir. 1985)).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Jones had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 3, 2016, the date of her application.
R. 23. At step two, the ALJ found that Jones suffered from the following severe
impairments: congestive heart failure with pacemaker implantation, chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, osteoarthritis, depression, anxiety, and
personality disorder. R. 23. The ALJ found that Jones’ other reported impairments
were non-severe. R. 23.
At step three, the ALJ found that Jones did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling the severity of any of
the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 23–25.
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Jones had the Residual
Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.967(b), except
the claimant is unable to lift and carry more than ten pounds; climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; or to perform around hazards, or in
concentrated exposure to environments of extreme hot or cold
temperatures, wetness, humidity, vibration, or fumes, odors, dust,
gases, or poor ventilation. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps
or stairs, and can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl.
The claimant needs the use of an assistive device for ambulation greater
than 25 feet, and cannot climb more than six steps at one time, and
cannot walk more than 200 feet at one time. The claimant can
understand, remember, and carry out short, simple instructions and
tasks. The claimant can maintain attention and concentration for
periods of two hours, and with customary breaks can complete an eighthour day. The claimant would do best with a well-spaced work area (at
least three feet from others), and contact with the public or supervisors
should be no more than occasional and brief (no more than 30 minutes
at one time. Any change in the work setting or expectations should be
infrequent and gradually introduced.
R. 26. In reaching this opinion, the ALJ stated that he considered Jones’ symptoms,
the objective medical evidence, and other evidence. R. 26.
Because the ALJ determined Jones had no past relevant work at step four (R.
30), the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) in finding that
there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy Jones could have
performed prior to September 16, 2018, when her age category changed. R. 30.
Thus, at step five of the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found that Jones was
not disabled prior to September 16, 2018. R. 31. However, the ALJ found that there
were not a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Jones could have
performed as of September 16, 2018. R. 31. Therefore, the ALJ found Jones to be
disabled as of September 16, 2018. R. 31.
III. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Jones was 55 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision. R. 16 & 48. She
alleges that her medical conditions include congestive heart failure, COPD, high
cholesterol, HBP, kidney stones, degenerative disc disease, OCD, problems with her
right foot, heart problems requiring the use of a pacemaker, and a cholecystectomy.
R. 171. Jones completed her GED in 1980. R. 172. She worked as a greeter at
Walmart until the end of 2008, when she stopped working to take care of children.
R. 172. Medical records from visits to Alabama Cardiovascular Group from 2016
to 2018 indicate normal cardiovascular findings on Jones’ physical exam. R. 381,
397, 480, 492, 498, 505, 515 & 676. The report from an echocardiogram performed
in January 2017 indicates normal findings except for a mildly dilated left ventricle,
along with mild grade-one diastolic dysfunction, mild mitral regurgitation, and
trivial tricuspid regurgitation. R. 482–86.
In a letter dated August 8, 2018, Rebecca Miller, M.D. wrote that she had been
Jones’ treating physician for more than three years. R. 667. Dr. Miller indicated that
Jones has significant depression and anxiety with a strong history of drinking,
although she had not consumed alcohol in more than a year. R. 667. According to
Dr. Miller, Jones has COPD, obstructive sleep apnea, and chronic kidney disease.
R. 667. Dr. Miller opined that Jones “is unable to maintain gainful employment due
to the multiple medical problems from which she suffers.” R. 667.
questionnaire, Dr. Miller indicated that Jones can stand for fewer than 15 minutes
continuously and can walk fewer than two city blocks without stopping. R. 668–69.
She also indicated that Jones can lift and carry fewer than five pounds. R. 669. Dr.
Miller noted that Jones can bend but cannot squat or kneel. R. 669.
Dr. Miller’s records from 2015 to 2018 indicate that Jones had normal motor
strength and tone with normal movement of all extremities. R. 278, 283, 288, 293 &
522. Jones did present with normal muscle tone but abnormal muscle strength and
limited range of motion in September 2016. R. 357. Dr. Miller also reported that
Jones was waddling and had an irregular gait at that time. R. 357. At the hearing
before the ALJ, she did not use a cane and testified that she can climb stairs. R. 46–
47 & 49.
On October 17, 2016, Samuel Saxon, Ph.D. conducted a disability
determination evaluation of Jones. R. 375–77. Dr. Saxon concluded that Jones
suffers from major depression and obsessive compulsive disorder and found that her
Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score was 40. R. 377. Dr. Saxon
concluded that Jones “does not appear at this time to have the physical ability to do
any kind of significant labor and it would appear that both her depression and her
anxiety probably interfere to a significant degree with her cognitive abilities as
well.” R. 377.
In March 2018, Jones sought treatment at Chilton Shelby Mental Health
Center. R. 542. She reported that she was experiencing stressors related to her
physical health which were increasing her depression. R. 542. Her appearance was
appropriate, although she was slightly overweight. R. 549. Her demeanor was flat
with calm activity and appropriate speech. R. 549. In July 2018, she again was found
to have appropriate appearance and affect but reported dysphoric mood. R. 694. Her
orientation was normal, and she had calm motor activity. R. 694. She was compliant
with her medications and did not report any side effects. R. 694. Jones had similar
results in August 2018 but presented with a euthymic mood, although she alleged
that the medication was causing her hair to fall out. R. 696.
Jones makes four arguments for reversing the ALJ’s decision: (1) the RFC is
more consistent with a classification of sedentary work than light work; (2) the ALJ
gave too little weight to the opinions of a treating physician; (3) the ALJ improperly
determined the RFC; and (4) the ALJ did not properly credit Jones’ testimony
relating to her pain and other nonexertional limitations. Doc. 10 at 9. The court
addresses each of these arguments in turn.
RFC of Light Work
After a finding that a claimant cannot return to prior work, the Commissioner
bears the burden to show other work the claimant can perform. Foote, 67 F.3d at
1559. This burden can be met by applying the medical-vocational guidelines only
when the claimant suffers primarily from exertional impairments. Id. When the
claimant suffers from significant non-exertional limitations, the Commissioner must
use VE testimony to show the other work the claimant could perform. Id.
Jones argues that the ALJ’s RFC assessment effectively restricts her to
sedentary work. Doc. 10 at 10–11. And if she has an RFC restricted to sedentary
work, then the medical-vocational guidelines indicate that she should likely be
deemed disabled. See 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, § 201.00(g).
However, the ALJ found that Jones has significant non-exertional impairments,
including depression, anxiety, and personality disorder. R. 23; see 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1569a(a) (describing nonexertional limitations as those that affect your ability
to meet the demands of work other than strength demands). Thus, the law required
the ALJ to rely on evidence from a VE. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1559. At Jones’ hearing,
a VE described two jobs classified as light that exist in significant numbers and could
be performed by a person with Jones’ RFC. R. 65–66. Jones does not contest the
VE’s testimony in this respect. On this record, the court concludes that the ALJ
complied with the law and the VE’s testimony provides substantial evidence
supporting the ALJ’s finding that Jones has the RFC to perform light duty jobs.
Formulating the RFC
Jones’ second and third issues on appeal intertwine in that they both concern
the ALJ’s RFC assessment, so the court will address these issues together. “Absent
‘good cause,’ an ALJ is to give the medical opinions of treating physicians
‘substantial or considerable weight.’” Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d
1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997)). “‘[G]ood cause’ exists when the: (1) treating physician’s opinion was
not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or
(3) treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s
own medical records. When electing to disregard the opinion of a treating physician,
the ALJ must clearly articulate its reasons.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232,
1241 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). An ALJ does not have to defer to
a treating physician’s conclusion that a patient is “disabled” or “unable to work”
because these are judgments reserved for the ALJ. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1).
Finally, when formulating the RFC, the Eleventh Circuit has held that an ALJ has
adequately considered an impairment if he states that he considered “all symptoms”
in determining the claimant’s RFC. Tuggerson-Brown v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 572
F. App’x 949, 951–52 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1224–25).
There is substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision to give minimal
weight to Dr. Miller’s testimony. The ALJ’s RFC assessment differs from Dr.
Miller’s conclusions in two respects. First, the RFC assessment allows for Jones to
carry up to ten pounds while Dr. Miller limits Jones to five pounds. R. 26 & 669.
Second, the RFC assessment allows for Jones to kneel and crouch frequently while
Dr. Miller opines that Jones is unable to kneel or squat. R. 26 & 669. Dr. Miller’s
own records undermine these two conclusions by indicating that Jones could walk
normally and had normal motor strength and tone with normal movement of all
extremities during multiple evaluations from 2015 to 2018. R. 278, 283, 288, 293 &
522. Other evidence indicates that Jones climbs stairs and that she attended the
hearing without using a cane. R. 46–47, 49 & 495. Finally, the ALJ was under no
obligation to defer to Dr. Miller’s conclusion in August 2018 that Jones could not
be gainfully employed because that is a determination reserved for the ALJ. See 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1).
Jones also argues that the ALJ failed to consider all relevant evidence when
determining her RFC. Doc. 10 at 16–17.
However, the ALJ stated that he
“considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably
be accepted as consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence.” R. 26. This
statement shows that the ALJ has adequately considered the evidence in making his
RFC assessment. Tuggerson-Brown, 572 F. App’x at 951–52.
Finally, Jones asserts that the ALJ must include all of a claimant’s medical
conditions in the hypothetical questions posed to the VE. Doc. 10 at 17. This is
incorrect. The ALJ must include all the claimant’s impairments in the hypothetical
questions. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229 (11th Cir. 1999). Here, the ALJ’s
hypothetical questions did included all of the impairments described in the RFC
assessment. Compare R. 26, with R. 63–66. Therefore, this court finds that there is
substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s RFC assessment.
The Social Security Regulations provide that a claimant’s subjective
complaints of pain alone cannot establish disability. Rather, the regulations describe
additional objective evidence that permits a finding of disability. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. Interpreting these regulations, the Eleventh
Circuit has articulated a “pain standard” that applies when a claimant attempts to
establish disability through her own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.
When establishing disability in this manner, a claimant must satisfy two parts of the
Eleventh Circuit’s three-part pain standard: “(1) evidence of an underlying medical
condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of
the alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can
reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284
F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002).
“[I]f 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 testimony.” Crow v. Colvin, 36 F. Supp. 3d 1255, 1259 (N.D. Ala. 2014).
A claimant’s testimony that is supported by medical evidence and satisfies the pain
standard “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921
F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). But an ALJ is free to determine that a claimant’s
testimony is not credible. See Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir.
2005); Crow, 36 F. Supp. 3d at 1259. Thus, after the pain standard is satisfied, the
“ALJ must make credibility determinations regarding a claimant’s claims of pain”
to determine whether the claimant truly is disabled. Fries v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 196 F. App’x 827, 833 (11th Cir. 2006); Crow, 36 F. Supp. 3d at 1259.
When determining the credibility of a claimant’s testimony as to her
symptoms, the ALJ must follow a two-step process: “(1) first determine if the
claimant has a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected
to produce the symptoms alleged; and, if so (2) evaluate the intensity and persistence
of the claimant’s symptoms such as pain and determine the extent to which the
claimant’s symptoms limit his or her ability to perform work-related activities.”
Cooley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2019 WL 211437, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 16, 2019).
“In considering the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the claimant’s
symptoms, the ALJ is to examine the entire case record, including the objective
medical evidence; an individual’s statements about the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical
sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual’s case
record.” Id. at *3 (internal citation and quotation omitted). “If the ALJ discredits
subjective testimony, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.”
Wilson, 284 F.2d at 1255. “The ALJ is not required explicitly to conduct a symptom
analysis, but the reasons for his or her findings must be clear enough that they are
obvious to a reviewing court.” Carrell v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 1696698, at *4 (N.D.
Ala. Apr. 17, 2019). Otherwise, the testimony will be accepted as true. Id. The pain
standard requires that the articulated reasons must be supported by substantial
evidence. Hale, 831 F.2d at 1012 (“Implicit in this rule is the requirement that such
articulation of reasons by the Secretary be supported by substantial evidence.”). In
any event, the “question is not . . . whether [the] ALJ could have reasonably credited
[the claimant’s] testimony, but whether the ALJ was clearly wrong to discredit it.”
Werner v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 421 F. App’x 935, 939 (11th Cir. 2011).
The ALJ discredited Jones’ statements regarding the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of her symptoms based on the objective medical evidence and
Jones’ own testimony. Regarding her physical impairments, Dr. Miller’s records
indicate that Jones generally had normal to moderate findings, although Jones had
some abnormal findings regarding her motor strength, range of motion, and gait. See
R. 278, 283, 288, 293, 357, 482–86 & 522.
The records from Alabama
Cardiovascular Group also show generally normal cardiovascular findings following
her pacemaker implantation in 2014. R. 381, 397, 480, 492, 498, 505, 515 & 676.
As to her mental impairments, Dr. Saxon diagnosed her with major depression and
obsessive compulsive disorder and found a GAF score of 40, indicating an
impairment. R. 377. But, more recently, Jones generally had no abnormal findings
despite her symptom complaints. R. 542, 549, 694 & 696. On this record, the court
cannot say that the ALJ was clearly wrong to discredit Jones’ subjective pain
testimony. This court finds that there is substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s
decision to discredit Jones’ statements regarding her pain and other nonexertional
For these reasons, the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and based upon the proper legal standards. Accordingly, the decision of
the Commissioner is due to be affirmed. A final judgment will be entered separately.
DONE and ORDERED on February 17, 2021.
GRAY M. BORDEN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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