Green v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 12/11/12. (CVA)
2012 Dec-11 AM 10:22
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
TARA MALEIGH GREEN,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Civil Action Number
Plaintiff Tara Maleigh Green (“Green”) 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”). Doc. 1. This court finds that the Administrative Law
Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision - which has become the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, and therefore, AFFIRMS the decision
I. Procedural History
Gibson filed her application for Title II disability insurance benefits on July
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21, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of July 7, 2005, due to asthma, high
blood pressure, obesity, and problems related to obesity. (R. 31-34, 110, 122).
After the SSA denied her applications, Green requested a hearing. (R. 63-67, 7071). At the hearing on September 9, 2010, Green was 33 years old with a
bachelor’s degree in psychology and a graduate degree in community mental
health counseling. (R. 31, 95, 127). Green’s past relevant work includes working
as a group home manager and sales clerk. (R. 52, 102-105, 123, 149). Green has
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 7, 2005. (R. 61, 122).
The ALJ denied Green’s claims, which became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R. 8-20, 1-5).
Green then filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). 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
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(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
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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 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f), 416.920(a)-(f). Specifically, the Commissioner
must determine in sequence:
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
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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 initially determined that Green
last met the insured status requirements of the Act on September 30, 2008. (R.
12). Thus, Green had to establish the existence of her disability on or before that
date in order to be entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits. (R. 10). Moving to the first step, the ALJ found that Green had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset
date of July 7, 2005 through her date last insured of September 30, 2008, and,
therefore, Green met Step One. (R. 12). Next, the ALJ found that Green satisfied
Step Two because she suffered from the severe impairments of “hypertension,
migraine headaches and obesity.” Id. The ALJ then proceeded to the next step
and found that Green failed to satisfy Step Three because she “did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of
the listed impairments.” (R. 13). Although the ALJ answered Step Three in the
negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, the ALJ
proceeded to Step Four where she determined that:
[T]he claimant had the residual functional capacity [“RFC”] to
perform sedentary work. . .could perform occasional walking and
standing for two hours during an eight hour workday. She was
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limited to occasional performance of postural positions such as
stooping, kneeling, crawling and climbing and she could not work
around concentrated exposure to gases or other fumes and noxious
odors. She also could not work in extreme cold and heat.
(R. 13). In light of Green’s RFC, the ALJ determined that Green is “unable to
perform any past relevant work.” (R. 15). After considering Green’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC through Green’s insured date, the ALJ
determined in Step Five that “there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in
the national economy that [Green] could have performed.” (R. 15-16).
Consequently, the ALJ found that Green “was not under a disability, as defined in
the Social Security Act, at any time from July 7, 2005, through September 30,
2008, the date last insured.” (R. 16).
Green disagrees with the ALJ’s decision and requests that this court enter
“judgment for such relief as may be proper.” Doc. 1 at 2. In light of Green’s
contention, the court must review the ALJ’s decision for error. Unfortunately for
Green, as shown below, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision.
Severe vs. Non-Severe Impairments
The court begins its review with Green’s impairments. Again, Green
alleges disability because of hypertension, asthma, obesity and problems related to
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obesity. (R. 122). The ALJ, however, determined that Green only had the severe
impairments of “hypertension, migraine headaches and obesity” and not “asthma,
gastroesophageal reflux disease and trace edema in the ankles.” (R. 12). In
making this determination, the ALJ relied on medical evidence in the record from
Green’s treating physicians, Drs. David Brown and S. R. Ahmed. Id. As the ALJ
noted, a review of Dr. Brown’s treatment notes from 2003 to 2009 shows that
Green had infrequent edema, mild respiratory problems, and Dyspepsia, a
gastrointestinal problem that Dr. Brown treated with the acid reflux medication
Nexium. (R. 161- 191). During Green’s July and September 2007 visits, Dr.
Brown reported that Green had “no edema,” “negative” respiratory problems,
lungs “clear to auscultation,” and took Nexium daily for her acid reflux with no
reports of problems. (R. 171, 173). Another visit occurred in October 2008,
during which Green weighed 414 pounds and reported no edema in her
extremities, mild wheezing at times, and chronic reflux, which Dr. Brown
continued to treat with Nexium. (R. 164). Finally, in July 2009, Dr. Brown noted
that Green had reached 434 pounds, had trace edema in her extremities that
seemed to increase when sedentary for prolonged periods, and that Green’s lungs
were clear to auscultation. (R. 12, 161-62).
The ALJ also reviewed Dr. Ahmed’s treatment notes from 2006, which
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described Green’s problems as “obesity and a history of asthma.” (R. 12, 235237). However, Dr. Ahmed’s examinations revealed that Green had no history of
edema or wheezing, and had clear breathing. Id.
In sum, the medical record supports the ALJ’s finding that Green’s asthma,
gastroesophageal reflux disease, and trace edema were not severe impairments.
As the ALJ noted, a severe impairment is an impairment which significantly limits
a claimant’s ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c),
404.1521(a). While there is some evidence that Green had problems at times with
these conditions, Green failed to present any evidence that these impairments were
so severe that they limited her ability to do basic work activities. Therefore, the
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination.
Residual Functional Capacity
The ALJ determined that Green had the RFC to perform sedentary work,
with only occasional walking, standing, stopping, kneeling, crawling, and
climbing. (R. 13). The substantial evidence also supports this finding. For
example, as the ALJ noted, although Green claimed she was disabled due to her
obesity, Green nonetheless was able to attend school and obtained a degree in
December 2009. (R. 14, 31, 37). Moreover, when the ALJ questioned Green
concerning why she left her job as a group home manager in 2005, Green cited
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difficulties with working and attending school simultaneously and a desire to
focus more on school, rather than any purported issues with her weight. (R. 30).
Later, when her attorney asked her similar questions, Green said she quit work due
to swelling in her legs and ankles. (R. 39-40). However, as the ALJ noted,
Green’s own admission that she worked more than forty hours per week and that
her hours made it difficult for her to attend school belies her subsequent
contention that leg and ankle issues caused her to quit working. (R. 30).
Moreover, the ALJ pointed out correctly that the medical evidence in the record
undermined Green’s contention regarding the severity or frequency of the swelling
in her lower extremities. (R. 14). Rather, Dr. Brown’s treatment notes showed
only infrequent, trace swelling. (R. 161- 191). Likewise, while Green had a
history of treatment for hypertension, as the ALJ stated, the record failed to show
that Green suffered from any disabling functional limitations due to her
hypertension. (R. 14). To the contrary, Dr. Brown’s treatment notes state clearly
that Green’s “[b]lood pressure control is currently acceptable as documented. Plan
to continue present meds without change.” (R. 167).
The only evidence in the record supporting Green’s alleged disability is Dr.
Brown’s statement that Green was disabled due to her obesity. (R. 162).
However, the ALJ gave this opinion “little weight” because (1) Dr. Brown made
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this statement in July 2009, and made no mention of whether Green was disabled
during the insured period, i.e. July 2005 to September 2008; (2) Dr. Brown
provided little explanation of the evidence he relied on to form this opinion, and
(3) the ALJ found that Dr. Brown’s opinion was inconsistent with his treatment
notes. (R. 15). Based on the court’s review of the record, the ALJ’s decision to
assign little weight to Dr. Brown’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence.
“It is well-established that ‘the testimony of a treating physician must be
given substantial or considerable weight unless “good cause” is shown to the
contrary.’” Crawford v. Comm’r of Social Security, 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th
Cir. 2004) (emphasis added) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440
(11th Cir. 1997)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). “Good
cause” exists when the “(1) treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the
evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating
physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical
records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004).
Additionally, the “ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for giving less weight to
the opinion of a treating physician, and the failure to do so is reversible error.”
Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440. “Good cause” existed here because the evidence
contradicted Dr. Brown’s opinion, and the opinion was inconsistent with Dr.
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Brown’s own treatment records, which made no mention of a disability prior to
July 2009. Rather, Dr. Brown’s contemporaneous notes showed only that he
successfully treated Green with medications for hypertension and acid reflux, and
encouraged Green to diet and exercise to lose weight. See (R. 161-191). At no
time prior to July 2009 did Dr. Brown opine that Green was disabled. The failure
to do so is consistent with Green’s reports to Dr. Brown that she was able to
function as a worker and as a student.
In sum, the court finds no error with the ALJ’s findings that “the evidence
suggests [Green] may have some limitations, but she is able to perform at least
some type of work activity, and in this case, she can perform work of a sedentary
exertional level.” (R. 15). In reaching this conclusion, the court notes that Green
failed to present sufficient evidence to the ALJ or to this court to support her
claim. Ultimately, Green has the burden of proving her claims, see 20 C.F.R. §
416.912(c), and failed to make the necessary showing. Therefore, the substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s RFC determination.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Green is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ
applied proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the
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Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance
with the memorandum of decision will be entered.
Done the 11th day of December, 2012.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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