Martin v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 3/15/2013. (KAM, )
2013 Mar-15 PM 03:53
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
TONY K. MARTIN,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
) Case No.: 3:11-CV-3547-VEH
Plaintiff Tony K. Martin (“Mr. Martin”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) (2006), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. He seeks review of a final
adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”), who denied his application for Disability Insurance Benefits
The court recently became aware that Carolyn W. Colvin was named the Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration on February 14, 2013. See
http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pressoffice/factsheets/colvin.htm (“On February 14, 2013, Carolyn
W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security.”) (last accessed on Mar. 13,
2013). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), “[a]ny action instituted in accordance with this subsection
shall survive notwithstanding any change in the person occupying the office of Commissioner of
Social Security or any vacancy in such office.” Accordingly, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and
Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court has substituted Carolyn W. Colvin
for Michael Astrue in the case caption above and HEREBY DIRECTS the clerk to do the same
party substitution on CM/ECF.
(“DIB”). Mr. Martin timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies
available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Martin was forty-five years old at the time of his hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 35). He has completed high school and four
years of college. (Id. ). His past work experiences include employment as a systems
accountant and systems analyst. (Tr. 25 ). He claims he became disabled on March
14, 2008, due to bipolar disorder and the symptoms associated with that condition.
(Tr. 16). His last period of work ended on that date as well. (Id.).
On March 31, 2008, Mr. Martin protectively filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and DIB. (Tr. 14). On May 16, 2008, the Commissioner initially
denied these claims. (Id.). Mr. Martin timely filed a written request for a hearing on
May 28, 2008. (Id.). The ALJ conducted a video hearing on the matter on December
8, 2009. (Id.). On February 4, 2010, he issued his opinion concluding Mr. Martin
was not disabled and denying him benefits. (Tr. 26). Mr. Martin timely petitioned
the Appeals Council to review the decision on April 5, 2010. (Tr. 219). On August
26, 2011, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on his claim. (Tr. 1).
Mr. Martin filed a Complaint with this court on October 3, 2011, seeking
review of the Commissioner’s determination. (Doc. 1). With the parties having fully
briefed the matter, the court has carefully considered the record and reverses the
decision of the Commissioner.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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 preponderance.” Id.
This court must uphold factual findings that are 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 fails to provide
the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d
1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
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 promulgated thereunder.2 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 an entitlement to
disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about 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
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499, revised as of April 1, 2007.
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 formerly applicable
C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 56263 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).
The sequential analysis goes as follows:
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 that such work exists in the national economy
in significant numbers. Id.
FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE
The ALJ here found that Mr. Martin met the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. (Tr. 16). He also found that Mr.
Martin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 14, 2008, the
alleged onset date of his disability. (Id.). He further concluded that Mr. Martin had
bipolar disorder, which qualifies as a severe impairment. (Id.). The ALJ then held
that this medically determinable impairment did not meet or medically equal one of
those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Regulations. (Tr.
After considering the entire record, the ALJ found that Mr. Martin had the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a “full range of light work at all
exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: unskilled work
requiring repetitive work-related activities and involving no more than occasional
interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.” (Tr. 22). In
reaching this determination, the ALJ discredited Mr. Martin’s articulation of the
limiting effects his disorder placed on his abilities. (Tr. 23). He also “did not credit,
to any great extent” the assessments made of Mr. Martin by his treating physicians:
Dr. Hugh Sharp IV, M.D., Dr. Martha E. Baker, Psy.D, Dr. H. Lee McDaris, Jr.,
M.D., and Dr. Tarak Vasavada, M.D. (Id.). He found their respective evaluations
inconsistent with the activity level maintained by Mr. Martin after their diagnoses and
with the Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores that Mr. Martin had
received on more than one occasion. (Tr. 23-24). In turn, the ALJ gave “some
weight” to the RFC conclusion reached by the non-examining physicians employed
by the State Disability Determination Services agency. (Tr. 24).
He then found that Mr. Martin was unable to perform any past relevant work.
(Tr. 25). He further concluded that Mr. Martin was forty-four years old on the alleged
disability date, had at least a high school education, and was able to communicate in
English. (Id.). He decided that “transferability of job skills [was] not material to the
determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a
framework supports a finding that the claimant [was] ‘not disabled,’ whether or not
the claimant [had] transferable skills.” (Id.). When considering Mr. Martin’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed
in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Martin could perform. (Id.).
In reaching this conclusion, he relied on the testimony of a vocational expert, Ms.
Barbara Azzam. (Tr. 14). Ms. Azzam testified that a person with Mr. Martin’s
profile could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as
assembler, inspector, and account clerk. (Tr. 26). She further vouched that jobs in
such occupations existed both regionally and nationally. (Id.).
Relying on these determinations, the ALJ found that Mr. Martin was not
disabled under the Social Security Act from March 14, 2008, through February 4,
2010, the date of the decision. (Id.). He thus rejected his application for DIB. (Id.).
The court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “This 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
However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Mr. Martin urges this court to reverse the Commissioner’s decision to deny his
benefits on two grounds: (1) the ALJ wrongly rejected the opinion evidence provided
by Mr. Martin’s treating physicians and (2) the ALJ erred in failing to consider
whether Mr. Martin’s chronic migraine headaches constituted a severe impairment.
(Doc. 9 at 12). As the court agrees with Mr. Martin’s first objection, it does not
address the latter.
THE ALJ INCORRECTLY APPLIED THE LEGAL STANDARD
FOR DISCREDITING THE OPINIONS OF TREATING
The ALJ wrongly discounted the various assessments of Mr. Martin’s
functional capacity provided by his treating physicians. The opinion of a treating
Strickland is binding precedent in this Circuit. See Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d
1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc) (adopting as binding precedent all decisions of the former
Fifth Circuit handed down prior to October 1, 1981).
physician “must be given substantial or considerable weight unless good cause is
shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhard, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir.
2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)) (internal
quotation marks omitted). “Good cause” exists when (1) the treating physician’s
opinion was not bolstered by the evidence, (2) the evidence supported a contrary
finding; or (3) the treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with
the doctor’s own medical records. Id. at 1241 (citation omitted). The ALJ must
clearly articulate his or her reasons for disregarding a treating physician’s opinion,
and the failure to do so is reversible error. Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440; see also 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (“We will always give good reasons in our notice of
determination or decision for the weight we give your treating source’s opinion.”).
However, when the ALJ adequately states specific reasons for doing so, and those
reasons are supported by substantial evidence, there is no such error. Moore v.
Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).
In this case, Mr. Martin submitted a “Mental Residual Functional Capacity
Questionnaire” (“Mental RFC Form”) that Dr. Hugh Sharp completed on July 13,
2009. (Tr. 225-229). Dr. Sharp had treated Mr. Martin since January 2005. (Doc.
241). On the Mental RFC Form, Dr. Sharp described Mr. Martin’s impairment and
symptoms as manifesting itself in “extreme interpersonal sensitivity [,] particularly
with regard to [his] marriage.” (Tr. 225). Specifically, “conflict results in crying,
withdrawal, hopelessness, [and] energia,” and the prognosis for improvement in his
condition was “poor.” (Id.). Dr. Sharp further opined that Mr. Martin had “no useful
ability” to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from his
psychologically-based symptoms. (Tr. 227). Mr. Martin was also “unable to meet
competitive standards” in the following areas:
Maintaining attention for two-hour segments
Sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision
Performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and
length of rest periods
Dealing with normal work stress
(Id.). Last, according to Dr. Sharp, Mr. Martin was “seriously limited, but not
precluded” from performing the following work-related activities:
Working in coordination with or in proximity to others without being
Making simple work-related decisions
Accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from
Responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting
(Id.). Dr. Sharp also believed that Mr. Martin would miss more than four days of
work per month due to his medical condition or the need for medical treatment. (Tr.
229). Elsewhere, in an August 2, 2007, letter addressed by Dr. Sharp to Mr. Martin’s
former employer, Dr. Sharp stated that Mr. Martin “has difficulty maintaining
concentration and focus on highly complex problems at work, particularly when
under the pressure of a deadline. When his condition is at its worst, he is essentially
bed-bound and unable to leave the house.” (Tr. 242).
Mr. Martin’s other treating physicians largely echoed this assessment. Dr.
Martha Baker, a licensed psychologist, began treating Mr. Martin on February 2,
2006, after Dr. Sharp referred him to her. (Tr. 271). In a document dated October 3,
2007, she opined that the level of stress and working conditions of his then-current
position compromised his mental health. (Tr. 271-72). She further noted that high
stress levels had repeatedly triggered in Mr. Martin episodes of depression,
generalized anxiety, hypomania, and physical illness and that “[t]oo much stress can
leave him so depressed that he cannot get out of bed or leave the house.” (Tr. 272).
In addition to Dr. Baker, Dr. Tarak Vasavada began treating Mr. Martin on January
8, 2007. (Tr. 173). Specifically, he managed the functioning of the Vagus Nerve
Stimulator device implanted into Mr. Martin in December 2006 for treatment of his
resistant depression. (Tr. 271). In a document dated October 31, 2007, Dr. Vasavada
vouched that Mr. Martin’s depression was chronic, that he was unlikely to recover,
and that he will be disabled for a long time and possibly forever. (Tr. 267). He also
diagnosed Mr. Martin with a GAF of 30. (Id.). Last, he advised him “not to work,
not to take additional stress from extra work, financial dealings, etc.” (Id.). Finally,
Dr. H. Lee McDaris, Jr., began treating Mr. Martin for headache evaluation and
management on July 25, 2007. (Tr. 173). In a letter dated October 30, 2007, he
doubted that Mr. Martin’s headaches would dissipate in his then-current working
conditions. (Tr. 311). He noted, “If stress levels cannot be adequately controlled, or
an ideal combination of medications is not found to control this condition, it is my
estimation that he is unable to work at this level on a sustained basis.” (Id.).
As noted, the ALJ chose essentially to disregard these opinions. (Tr. 23). He
found their assessments “too restrictive, considering the subsequent activity level that
is contained in the medical records subsequent to the claimant’s alleged onset of
disability.” (Id.) . He cited the following activities as examples:
Volunteering at a local Mental Health Association in September 2008
Acting as treasurer of his children’s Parent Teacher Association
Joining a gym
Participating in the church choir
Periodically meeting with a friend for breakfast
Complaining on April 22, 2008, that he did not seem to have enough
time to handle household and yard chores (“implying that he was busy
with some undisclosed activities”)
Driving to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend to his daughter’s medical
Going on a vacation to Orlando, Florida
Maintaining a household while his wife works during the day, including
driving his children to and from school successfully
(Tr. 24). The ALJ also found that Dr. Sharp’s assessment of Mr. Martin clashed with
the GAF score of 55 that the doctor simultaneously gave him. (Id.). As such a score
“implies only moderate symptoms,” the ALJ thought it inconsistent with the severe
limitations outlined by Dr. Sharp. (Id.). Additionally, he stated, without elaborating,
that Dr. Sharp’s evaluation “substantially contradicted” the doctor’s earlier comments
on Mr. Martin. (Id.). Finally, citing Mr. Martin’s service as a PTA treasurer as an
example, the ALJ concluded that the record did not support the claimed
incapacitating effects of stress on Mr. Martin. (Id.). Instead, Dr. Sharp’s assessment
“appears to be designed more to help the claimant obtain medical benefits rather than
to constitute an objective assessment of the claimant’s actual limitations and
restrictions . . .” (Id.). In his brief before the court, the Commissioner largely
reiterated the ALJ’s reasoning in defending his ultimate decision. (See Doc. 11 at 912).
These arguments do not qualify as “good cause” to disregard the congruous
medical opinions of Mr. Martin’s four treating physicians. The Commissioner
implicitly admits that the physicians’ collective medical assessment of Mr. Martin,
if fully credited, would support the conclusion that he was “disabled” under the Social
Security Act during the claimed eligibility period. Therefore, in order to meet the
“good cause” standard, the Commissioner must show that the doctors’ opinions were
either not bolstered by the evidence, conclusory, or inconsistent with their own
medical records. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 (citation omitted). He argues the first
and third points, but he fails to make his case. Specifically, none of the activities he
identifies undermine a diagnosis of psychological incapacity. Mr. Martin’s treating
physicians variously opine that he is no longer able to handle the stress, goal-oriented
thinking, time management responsibility, and interpersonal relationships that
necessarily attend gainful employment. The daily living activities enumerated by the
ALJ – volunteering, running errands, exercising, driving, doing chores, etc. – simply
do not undercut such an assessment. In fact, the ALJ did not attempt to substantiate
his claim that they did so in any detail. While he did identify the “duties and
pressures of being a PTA treasurer” and the responsibilities that such a position
would entail, he failed to infer that Mr. Martin’s resignation from that position
subverted his own assessment. (See Tr. 24, 42-43). Additionally, Mr. Martin
persuasively argues that the part-time responsibilities of being a volunteer PTA
treasurer do not equate to those of a full-time employee. (Doc. 9 at 9). Apart from
this example, the ALJ simply did not explain how any of the other listed activities
refuted a diagnosis of mental disability.
The other reasons the ALJ marshaled for discounting the opinion evidence of
Mr. Martin’s four treating physicians are similarly unconvincing. As noted, he cited
Dr. Sharp’s conferral of the relatively moderate GAF score of 55 on Mr. Martin in the
Mental RFC Form the doctor completed on May 28, 2008. (Tr. 24, 424). Such an
observation ignores the dynamic nature of bipolar disorder.
(See Doc. 12 at 5)
(“GAF scores can very widely in a short period of time and among medical
providers.”). Because of his condition, Mr. Martin alternates between episodes of
mania, hypo-mania, depression, and (relative) normality. (See generally Tr. 152171). He admits that he can be comparatively functional at times. (Id.). The fact that
he received a GAF score of 55 at a certain point (or points) in his treatment is thus
unsurprising and insufficiently conclusive to undermine the diagnoses of several
treating physicians. Moreover, the ALJ failed to mention that Dr. Vasavada had
given Mr. Martin the more dire GAF score of 30 on October 31, 2007. (Tr. 267).
The court may also dismiss the ALJ’s observation that Dr. Sharp’s assessment
in his 7/13/09 Mental RFC Form varied from his earlier evaluation of Mr. Martin.
The ALJ did not elaborate on the nature of this departure; he referenced Dr. Sharp’s
earlier GAF score as if it were sufficient to prove a fatal contradiction in the record.
Even assuming that the ALJ has proven a legitimate inconsistency, such a
discrepancy does not rise to the level needed to override a treating physician’s
opinion (much less the accordant opinions of four treating physicians). Where
medical evidence does not conclusively counter a treating physician’s opinion, and
no other good cause is presented, the Commissioner cannot discount that doctor’s
opinion. Schnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1981) (emphasis added).
This holding especially applies where, as here, the ALJ decided to credit instead the
opinion of non-examining physicians. (Tr. 24); see also Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d
1179, 1182 (11th Cir. 1986) (“This court has previously cautioned against rejecting
the opinions of treating physicians in favor of the contrary conclusions of consultants
who have merely examined an applicant's medical records.”) (citation omitted).
With these observations in mind, the court finds that ALJ incorrectly decided
to “not credit, to any great extent” the assessments of Drs. Sharp, Vasavada, Baker,
Reversal is warranted where the record is fully developed, and, upon the
application of the correct legal standards, the claimant is entitled to benefits. Carnes
v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). Based upon this court’s evaluation
of the evidence in the record and the submissions of the parties, the court finds that
the record is fully developed and that the Commissioner did not apply proper legal
standards in reaching his final decision. When the court applies the correct standard
here, reversal is warranted with directions to award benefits. Accordingly, the
decision will be reversed and remanded with such directions by separate order.
DONE and ORDERED this 15th day of March, 2013.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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