Cook v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 3/28/2014. (JLC)
2014 Mar-28 PM 12:07
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
TINA K. COOK,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
) Case No.: 3:12-CV-3525-VEH
Plaintiff Tina K. Cook brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section
205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final adverse decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who denied
her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Cook timely pursued
Carolyn W. Colvin was named the Acting Commissioner 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
September 16, 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.
and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The
case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).2 For the following reasons, the
court will AFFIRM the Commissioner’s decision.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Ms. Cook was 44 years old at the time of her hearing before the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 117. She has a high school diploma and attended a few years
of college. Tr. 130. Her past work experience includes employment as a machine
operator, restaurant owner, and store manager. Tr. 149-156. She claims she became
disabled on May 5, 2008, due to fibromyalgia and muscle connective tissue disorder
in her legs. Tr. 125. Her last period of work ended on that same date. Id.
On February 23, 2009, Ms. Cook protectively filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and DIB. Tr. 20. On April 14, 2009, the Commissioner initially
denied these claims. Id. Ms. Cook timely filed a written request for a hearing on May
1, 2009. Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on November 1, 2010. Id. On
December 15, 2010, she issued her opinion concluding Ms. Cook was not disabled
and denying her benefits. Tr. 20-30. Ms. Cook timely petitioned the Appeals Council
to review the decision on February 1, 2011. Tr. 12. On August 8, 2012, the Appeals
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) renders the judicial review provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) fully
applicable to claims for SSI.
Council issued a denial of review on her claim. Tr. 1.
Ms. Cook filed a Complaint with this court on October 5, 2012, seeking review
of the Commissioner’s determination. Doc. 1. The Commissioner answered on
January 9, 2013. Doc. 7. On March 25, 2013, the Commissioner filed a supporting
brief. Doc. 9.
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.3 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” that “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
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.
is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in
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. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1559.
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:
Ms. Cook last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security
Act on June 30, 2010.
She had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged
onset date of May 5, 2008, through her date last insured.
She had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, a history of
bilateral ulnar nerve transposition, and a history of cervical radiculopathy
status post anterior cervical discectomy and fusion with allograft and
She did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1 – specifically, Listing 1.00.
She had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work
as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), but with some exceptions.
Specifically, Ms. Cook could have walked/stood – each – for two hours
during an eight-hour workday, and she should have been afforded the
opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing one to two minutes
every hour, if needed. Additionally, she could have only occasionally
performed overhead work, and she could have performed frequent
movement of her head – specifically, she should not have performed a
lot of looking up and down. Finally, she could have frequently
performed pushing and pulling with her upper extremities.
Through the date last insured, she was unable to perform any past
She was born on [redacted by court], 1966, and was 44 years old, which
is defined as a younger individual age 18-49.
She had at least a high school education and was able to communicate in
Transferability of job skills was not material to the determination of
disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework
supported a finding that she was “not disabled,” whether or not she had
transferable job skills.
Through the date last insured, considering her age, education, work
experience, and residual functioning capacity, there were jobs that
existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could
Ms. Cook had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from May 5, 2008, the alleged onset date, through June 30,
2010, the date last insured.
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
Cir. 1980)).4 However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Ms. Cook did not submit a brief outlining her arguments for reversal.
Nevertheless, the court has exercised its duty to independently scrutinize the record.
It finds that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s factual findings and the
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).
Commissioner did not commit any legal errors in arriving at her conclusion that Ms.
Cook was not disabled.
Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s RFC Determination.
It is obvious, from her hearing testimony and from other parts of the record, that
Ms. Cook disputes that she can return to work of any kind because of her fibromyalgia
and associated pain in her extremities. See, e.g, Tr. 48-52. The court will thus analyze
here the ALJ’s conclusion that she still had the capacity to perform “light” work5 –
with certain restrictions – despite her impairments. As explained below, the ALJ
applied proper legal standards in deciding to discredit Ms. Cook’s subjective
complaints of pain. As the ALJ capably revealed, the record evidence substantially
supported her RFC determination.
Ms. Cook cites her considerable pain in supporting her disability claim. In her
hearing testimony, she stated that the pain was “primarily” in her hips and legs and
“occasionally” in her arms. Tr. 48. The pain allegedly manifested itself as “a burning
The Regulations define “light work” in the following manner:
Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or
carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very
little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or
when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg
controls . . . If someone can do light work, we determine that he or she can also do
sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity
or inability to sit for long periods of time.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).
pain all over,” and it allegedly afflicted her every day. Id. She claimed she had
relatively good days and bad days, however, and the bad days occurred roughly three
days a week. Id. On those bad days, she stated that she lied down roughly six hours
a day with a heating pad wrapped up in a blanket. Tr. 48-49. She scaled her pain
during these times as “at least a seven or eight. It’s like your body is on fire.” Tr. 49.
However, the pain was only at a four or five on the relatively “good” days. Id. The
pain allegedly prevented her from many of her daily activities – like going outdoors,
doing crafts, and sewing. Tr. 49-50. Also, she was unable to do household chores
regularly. Tr. 50. The pain further caused her to inadvertently drop things she was
holding. Id. According to Ms. Cook, she wouldn’t be able to perform even a stationary
job because she couldn’t stand and look down for a long period of time. Id.
A claimant who seeks “to establish a disability based on testimony of pain and
other symptoms” must show the following:
Evidence of an underlying medical condition; and
objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged
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) (citation omitted). An ALJ
must articulate “explicit and adequate reasons” in order to discredit subjective
testimony. Id. (citation omitted). Failure to do so “requires, as a matter of law, that the
testimony be accepted as true.” Id. (citation omitted). However, the ALJ does not need
to “specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision,” so long as the
decision shows that the ALJ considered the claimant's medical condition as a whole.
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted).
The ALJ here acknowledged that Ms. Cook had “some credible pain
symptoms” from her severe impairments. Tr. 24. However, the ALJ was also explicit
and persuasive in explaining why she did not find that the objective medical evidence
substantiated Ms. Cook’s allegations of “totally disabling” symptoms and limitations.
Id. The ALJ based her conclusion on the following three foundations:
Ms. Cook’s treatment notes revealed that her neck pain had “essentially
resolved since undergoing a disectomy and fusion with allograft and
the treatment notes also revealed Ms. Cook’s fibromyalgia was wellcontrolled with medication; and
Ms. Cook’s self-description of her daily living activities were not as
limited as one would expect given her complaints of totally disabling
symptoms and limitations.
Id. The ALJ then elaborated by reviewing the medical record systematically. She
highlighted a “Function Report” Ms. Cook filled out in March 2009. Tr. 25. In that
report, Ms. Cook acknowledged performing personal care, doing routine household
chores, driving, and shopping. Id. Ms. Cook further admitted to requiring reminders
to take her pain medication, and she reported no problems paying attention or
following instructions. Id.
The ALJ noted that Ms. Cook had suffered from bilateral ulnar nerve
entrapment and had received treatment for it as far back as 2005. Id. In fact, she had
undergone two procedures – in October 2005 and December 2007 – to address
symptoms of this ailment in her right ulnar nerve and left elbow. Id. These procedures
were reportedly successful, and a February 2008 EMG/NCS of Ms. Cook’s upper-left
extremity revealed no abnormalities. Id.
The ALJ also underscored several medical appointments Ms. Cook made after
her alleged disability onset date. Id. During these visits, Ms. Cook variably
complained to her physicians about fatigue, lightheadedness, foot swelling,
aching/tingling in her legs, and respiratory problems. Id. The ALJ emphasized that,
in each instance, physical examinations revealed Ms. Cook’s condition to be
unremarkable or otherwise without serious abnormalities. Tr. 25-26. On several
occasions – such as in January 2009, October 2009, and December 2009 – Ms. Cook
reported that she was doing well or that her medication was working. Tr. 26-27. After
her physician performed a surgical procedure on her to address her cervical
radiculopathy, she further reported in follow-up appointments in March, May, and
June 2010 that she was doing “exceptionally well,” that her physical activity was
unencumbered, and that the procedure had “almost erased the neuropathic pain she
had been having in her arms.” Tr. 27. She did complain to her primary care physician
in the spring and fall of 2010 regarding fibromyalgia-related pain in her hip and leg.
Tr. 27-28. However, she reported to her rheumatologist that September that her
medication was working well with her pain symptoms. Tr. 28.
The ALJ finally emphasized certain admissions Ms. Cook made in her hearing
testimony. Ms. Cook acknowledged that she had no major problems with her neck
since her surgery outside of “some lack of flexion.” Id. She also admitted that “she
was not under as much stress as she reported to her Rheumatologist in September
2010.” Id. She further admitted having no issues with personal care. Id.
Altogether, the ALJ has articulated “explicit and adequate reasons” for
discrediting Ms. Cook’s claims of totally-disabling pain. The court further finds that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that the objective medical
evidence did not sustain the severity of Ms. Cook’s alleged pain.
The ALJ Fully and Fairly Developed the Record.
The ALJ’s Duty to Develop the Record
Social Security proceedings “are inquisitorial rather than adversarial.” Sims v.
Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 110-11 (2000) (plurality opinion). The ALJ thus has the duty “to
investigate the facts and develop the arguments both for and against granting
benefits.” Id. at 111 (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 400-01 (1971)). The
ALJ’s “basic obligation to develop a full and fair record,” Coward v. Schweiker, 662
F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir. 1981), exists whether or not the applicant is represented.
Brown v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 931, 934 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). When the
claimant is unrepresented, however, the ALJ’s duty is heightened. See Smith v.
Schweiker, 677 F.2d 826, 829 (11th Cir. 1982). As the Commissioner notes, Ms. Cook
was legally represented in his hearing below. Doc. 9 at 14 (citing Tr. 48). Thus, the
ALJ had no special duty to “scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of,
and explore for all relevant facts.” Id. (quotation omitted).
The ALJ must specifically “develop the claimant's complete medical history for
at least the 12 months preceding the month in which the application was filed, and to
make every reasonable effort to help a claimant get medical reports from the
claimant's own medical sources when permission is given.” Robinson v. Astrue, 235
F. App'x 725, 727 (11th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(d)). The
ALJ should re-contact medical sources when the evidence received from that source
is inadequate to determine whether the claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1512(e), 416.912(e). “Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of proving that
he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support
of his claim.” Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam)
The ALJ did not need to solicit an MSS or a consultative examination.
In arriving at her conclusion that Ms. Cook had the RFC to perform light work,
the ALJ did not examine a medical source statement (“MSS”) from either a treating
or examining physician. Nor did the ALJ independently solicit a consultative
examination from a qualified physician.
Neither omission was reversible error. An ALJ should order an MSS or a
consultative examination “when such an evaluation is necessary for him to make an
informed decision.” Reeves v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 519, 522 n.1 (11th Cir. 1984)
(citation omitted)). That is, such an assessment is essential when the record is
otherwise underdeveloped. The court has already reviewed the meticulous analysis
performed by the ALJ in this case. The ALJ did not encounter a claimant with an
unexamined (or inadequately examined) collection of impairments. Rather, the ALJ
confronted a “record contain[ing] sufficient evidence . . . to make an informed
decision.” Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir.
2007) (citation omitted). Ms. Cook – through her counsel – notably did not petition
the ALJ for an MSS or a consultative examination. The ALJ therefore did not err in
failing to obtain one unrequested by this represented claimant.
The ALJ’s vocational questions were adequately comprehensive.
Neither did the ALJ reversibly err in the questions she directed to the vocational
expert (“VE”) who testified at Ms. Cook’s hearing. In order for the testimony of a VE
“to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question which
comprises all of the claimant’s impairments.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219,
1227 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam) (citation omitted). In this case, the ALJ posed four
hypothetical scenarios to the VE. She described the first scenario in the following
Let’s assume we have a hypothetical individual with the claimant’s education,
training, work experience who’s limited to a light range of work as that term is
defined under the regulations. Who must be afforded an option to sit and stand
during the workday one, or change positions one or two minutes every hour or
so. Is further limited to occupations where there would only be occasional
overhead work or frequent movements of the head. And further limited to
occupations which would at most require frequent push, pull of the bilateral
upper extremity. Would Mr. Alpha be able to perform any of Ms. Cook’s past
Tr. 53. In response to the VE’s question concerning what she meant by “head
movements,” the ALJ elaborated, “Like having, having to do frequent up, down sort
of as the claimant testified. She’s not supposed to do looking up and looking down.”
Id. After the VE responded to that clarification, the ALJ then described the second
Let’s assume we have a second hypothetical individual, Mr. Beta, who also is,
has the claimant’s education, training, work experience limited to a light range
of work as that term is defined in the regulations. But would be further limited
to occasional, well, actually would have the same limitations as Mr. Alpha, but
would also be further limited to occasional walking and standing two hours out
of an eight hour day. Would be walking two hours, standing two hours, so it’d
be a total of four hours out of the eight hour day. Would Mr. Beta be able to
perform any of Ms. Cook’s past relevant work?
Id. After the VE responded to that hypothetical, the ALJ described the following
Let’s assume we have a third hypothetical individual, Mr. Charlie, who has the
claimant’s education, training, work experience, and the same limitations as Mr.
Beta. But who would further be limited to occasional or, I’m sorry, must avoid
concentrated exposure to hot/cold temperature extremes or excessive vibration.
I’m going to assume that Mr. Charlie would not be able to perform any of the
past relevant work since Mr. Beta couldn’t but is there other work in the, or
other jobs in the national or regional economy that a person with those
limitations could perform?
Tr. 54. Finally, the ALJ concluded with this scenario:
Let’s assume we have a fourth hypothetical individual with the claimant’s
education, training, and work experience, Mr. Delta, who has the same
limitations as Mr. Charlie. But who would be expected to miss two days of
work per month due to physical problems. Again, I’m going to assume that past
relevant work is not available but is there other work in the regional or national
economy that a person with those limitations could perform?
These hypothetical questions more than adequately spanned Ms. Cook’s
impairments. The ALJ progressively adjusted her various scenarios to accommodate
the full range of Ms. Cook’s possible restrictions. In fact, when asked by the VE to
clarify her comment regarding head movement restrictions, the ALJ specified
precisely how Ms. Cook’s circumscribed neck flexion limited her functional
capabilities. The ALJ also permitted Ms. Cook’s attorney to ask a further hypothetical
to the VE that reflected certain alleged limitations of Ms. Cook’s that he evidently
wanted to highlight. Altogether, the ALJ satisfied her duty to fully and fairly develop
the record in this respect.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the parties’
submissions, the court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence and that she applied proper legal standards in arriving at it.
Accordingly, the court will affirm the decision by separate order.
DONE and ORDERED this the 28th day of March, 2014.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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