Lampkin v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED as more fully set out therein. Signed by Judge Liles C Burke on 12/3/2018. (AHI)
2018 Dec-03 AM 11:39
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Case No.: 3:17-cv-231-LCB
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On February 12, 2017, plaintiff Kanisha Lampkin filed a complaint (Doc. 1)
seeking judicial review of an adverse final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Plaintiff later filed an amended complaint (Doc. 4). On August 25, 2017,
plaintiff filed a Fact and Law Summary (Doc. 10). On September 22, 2017 the
Commissioner filed a Fact and Law Summary (Doc. 11). Therefore, this matter is
ripe for review.
For the reasons stated below, the final decision of the
Commissioner is affirmed.
On September 26, 2013, plaintiff protectively filed an application for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits; plaintiff also filed an
application for supplemental social security income on the same day. (Doc. 10, p.
3). In both applications, plaintiff alleged disability beginning on April 22, 2013.
(Id.). On July 10, 2015, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”), J. Dennis Reap,
conducted a video hearing from Franklin, Tennessee. (Tr. 31). Plaintiff, her
attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) were present at the hearing. (Id.). On
September 3, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision. In doing so, the ALJ engaged in
the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commission to
determine whether an individual is disabled. (Id. at 12-24). The ALJ made the
1. Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act
through December 31, 2017. (Id. at 14).
2. Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 22,
2013, the alleged onset date. (Id.).
3. Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: spine disorders;
migraines; affective disorder; and anxiety disorder. (Id.).
4. Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in
20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 15).
5. Plaintiff has the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that
she is limited to understanding, remembering, carrying out, and
performing simple, routine, repetitive 1-2 tasks; occasional interaction
with coworkers and supervisors; no public interaction; better working
with things rather than people; and can adapt to occasional changes in
work routines. (Id. at 17).
6. Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as an assembler.
This work does not require the performance of work-related activities
precluded by plaintiff’s RFC. (Id. at 22).
7. Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from April 22, 2013 through the date of his decision on September
3, 2015. (Id. at 23-24).
Plaintiff requested an appeal to the Appeals Council, which denied her
request for review on December 12, 2016. (Tr. 1). At that point, the ALJ’s
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Henry v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015). Plaintiff then filed this action on
February 12, 2017. (Doc. 1).
The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits
and supplemental social security income to persons with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. §§
423, 1381 (2012). The law defines disability 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 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. §§
On January 18, 2017, the Social Security Administration significantly revised its regulations
regarding the evaluation of medical evidence to determine a disability; those new regulations
became effective on March 27, 2017. The Court, however, must apply the regulations in effect
at the time that the ALJ entered his decision. See Ashley v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 707 F.
App'x 939, 944 n.6 (11th Cir. 2017) (“We apply the regulations in effect at the time of the ALJ’s
Standard of Review
The Court must determine whether the Commissioner’s decision is
supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were
applied. Winschel v. Comm’r of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011).
“Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal
citation and quotation marks omitted). “This limited review precludes deciding the
facts anew, making credibility determinations, or re-weighing the evidence.”
Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, while the Court
must scrutinize the record as a whole, the Court must affirm if the decision is
supported by substantial evidence, even if the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner’s findings. Henry v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264 (11th Cir.
2015); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).
Five-Step Sequential Evaluation
The Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations that set
forth a five-step sequential evaluation process that an ALJ must follow in
evaluating a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In summary, the
evaluation proceeds as follows:
1. Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If the answer is
decision.”). Because the ALJ entered his decision on September 3, 2015, the Court will apply
the regulations in place at that time.
“yes,” the claimant is not disabled. If the answer is “no,” proceed to the
next step. Id.
2. Does the claimant have a medically determinable impairment or
combination of impairments that satisfies the duration requirement and
significant limits his or her ability to perform basic work activities? If
the answer is “no,” the claimant is not disabled. If the answer is “yes,”
proceed to the next step. Id.
3. Does the claimant have an impairment that meets or medically equals the
criteria of a listed impairment within 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1? If the answer is “yes,” the claimant is disabled. If the
answer is “no,” proceed to the next step. Id.
4. Does the claimant have the RFC to return to his or her past relevant
work? If the answer is “yes,” then the claimant is not disabled. If the
answer is “no,” proceed to the next step. Id.
5. Even if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, does the
claimant’s RFC, age, education, and past work experience allow him or
her to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy? If
the answer is “yes,” the claimant is not disabled. If the answer is “no,”
the claimant is disabled. Id.
The claimant bears the burden of proof with respect to the first four steps.
Washington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018). The
burden then shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to prove the existence of
jobs in the national economy that the claimant is capable of performing; however,
the burden of proving lack of RFC always remains with the claimant. Id.
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in two ways: (1) improperly discrediting
her complaints of disabling back pain; and (2) failing to articulate good cause for
giving little weight to the opinions of her treating physician. The Court will
address each contention in turn.
Complaints of disabling back pain
The ALJ determined that plaintiff had mild disorders of her lumbar spine.
However, as part of his RFC finding, the ALJ determined that, while
plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments – including her lumbar spine
disorder – could reasonably be expected to cause some of her alleged symptoms,
her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those
symptoms were not entirely credible. (Tr. 18). Plaintiff asserts that, in making this
finding, the ALJ did not fully credit her allegations of chronic debilitating back
pain. (Doc. 10, p. 6). In particular, plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s reasons for his
negative credibility findings with respect to her reported symptoms of back pain
were not supported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 5). The Court disagrees.
Where a claimant attempts to establish disability, in part, based on subjective
complaints of pain and other symptoms, she must show (1) evidence of an
underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence
confirming the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition; or (b) that
the objectively determined medical condition is of such severity that it can
reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284
F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a).
objective medical evidence does not confirm the severity of the alleged pain, but
indicates that a medically determinable impairment could reasonably be expected
to produce the alleged symptoms (i.e., 2(b)), the ALJ must evaluate the intensity
and persistence of the claimant’s symptoms and the extent to which they limit the
claimant’s capacity for work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c), 416.929(c). In doing so,
the ALJ must necessarily make credibility determinations regarding a claimant’s
reports of pain or other symptoms; if the ALJ discredits a claimant’s subjective
testimony, he must articulate his reasons for doing so. Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225.
In evaluating the intensity and persistence of a claimant’s symptoms, the
ALJ will consider information submitted about same, including the individual’s
daily activities; location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain or other
symptoms; precipitating and aggravating symptoms; type/dosage, effectiveness,
and side effects of any medication taken to alleviate the symptoms; treatment,
other than medication, the claimant has received for relief of pain or other
symptoms; other measures used to relieve the symptoms; and any other factors
concerning functional limitations and restrictions due to pain or other symptoms.
SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 at *2.
Here, as the Court has noted, the ALJ found that the record revealed mild
disorders of the lumbar spine. (Tr. 19.) For example, the ALJ noted that lumbar
spine imaging taken in August 2012 revealed a very mild disc bulge at L5/S1 and
rudimentary at S1-2. (Id. at 369). In April 2013, an x-ray of the lumbar spine
showed no fracture, pathologies, or severe dislocation, normal boney structures and
well-maintained disc space. (Id. at 1097). In July 2013, after the alleged onset
date, lumbar spine imaging showed no evidence of acute bony disease and wellmaintained disc space. (Id. at 382).
An April 2014 treatment record indicated
lumbar x-rays were also unremarkable. (Id. at 804; see also 795 [January 2014
note noting unremarkable lumbar series], 914).
The ALJ took these records
indicating a mild lumbar spine disorder into consideration when formulating
plaintiff’s RFC. (Id. at 17, 19).
Nonetheless, the ALJ found that the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of plaintiff’s lumbar spine disorder were not as severe or debilitating as she
Notably, the ALJ did not wholly discredit plaintiff’s allegations of
debilitating back pain; rather, he determined that her statement’s concerning the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were not entirely
credible. The ALJ supported this finding with substantial evidence. For example,
the ALJ found that clinical exams revealed functioning consistent plaintiff’s RFC
of light work and did not support the degree of impairment she alleged. Clinical
exams from approximately May 2013 to May 2015 revealed no relevant
abnormality and only occasional, minimal lumbrosacral tenderness. (Tr. 368, 387,
396-97, 562, 577, 599, 780-81, 783-84, 786, 789-90, 793, 796, 802, 805, 809, 812,
815, 818, 821, 824, 878, 886, 893,903, 912, 903, 936, 947, 953, 967, 1160, 1167,
1174, 1180, 1183, 1193, 1220). Furthermore, a May 30, 2013 note revealed that,
while plaintiff reported her daily activities were limited by pain, it was relieved
with medications, heat, ice reposition, and rest. (Id. at 368). Notes in June and
July 2013 and January, February, March, and May 2014 revealed a fairly
decent/moderate response to medication with no obvious adverse effects of
medication and that plaintiff was able to perform activities of daily living, such as
bathing, walking and housekeeping. (Id. at 786, 789, 795, 798, 801, 808). While
plaintiff presented with reported worsening pain in September 2014 that interfered
with routine tasks, such as housekeeping, she was treated with a trigger point
injection. (Id. at 820-22). October 2014 and March and May 2015 notes indicate
that plaintiff was still able to perform activities of daily living such as bathing,
walking and housekeeping; in March and May 2015, plaintiff denied radiating
pain. (Id. at 823, 1180, 1186). In February and April 2014, hospital physicians
confirmed normal back exams with no tenderness, normal range of motion, and
normal gait. (Id. at 904, 912).
And, contrary to plaintiff’s allegations, the ALJ did consider the longitudinal
treatment record as noted above. The ALJ also noted that plaintiff had limited and
conservative treatment for her back pain after the alleged onset date, which did not
support the degree of impairment she alleged. For example, plaintiff was treated
conservatively with medication, very limited injection therapy, and advised to walk
more and continue aerobic exercise.
(Id. at 779-825, 1180-1197, 1218); see
Horowitz v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 688 F. App'x 855, 863 (11th Cir. 2017) (“ALJs
are permitted to consider the type of a treatment a claimant received in assessing
the credibility of her subjective complaints.”). The ALJ did not, as plaintiff argues,
pick and choose records to support his conclusion; rather a review of the relevant
medical records supports the ALJ’s conclusion that, while there is evidence of a
spine disorder, it is not disabling to the extent that plaintiff alleges.
Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in determining that her reported
activities, such as managing her own hygiene, preparing meals, and shopping, were
inconsistent with the presence of disabling symptoms and limitations. Again, the
Court disagrees. For one, the ALJ did not solely rely on plaintiff’s reported
activities in making his credibility determination that her pain was not as disabling
as she alleged. The ALJ also looked at plaintiff’s overall conservative treatment,
the fact that medication helped alleviate the pain in addition to the fact that, as
discussed supra, she was able to continue activities of daily living such as bathing,
walking, and housekeeping.
Moreover, courts have upheld an ALJ’s adverse
credibility determination when it was based in part on the claimant’s ability to
perform limited household chores. See, e.g., Pennington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
652 F. App'x 862, 872–73 (11th Cir. 2016) (“Moreover, an ALJ properly may rely
on a claimant's daily activities in making credibility determinations.”); Parks v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 353 F. App'x 194, 197 (11th Cir. 2009) (“The ALJ expressly
based the credibility determination on Parks' ability to take care of her personal
needs, including errands, driving, and attending church, and the fact that her
medication was controlling her pain. The record supports the ALJ's conclusion
because it shows Parks was able to cook, clean, run errands, drive, and attend
church weekly. Additionally, medical evidence shows Parks' medication
reasonably controlled her pain.”).
The fact that plaintiff can point to other
evidence supporting her allegations of disabling pain does not mean that the ALJ’s
credibility determination was not supported by substantial evidence. Therefore,
the Court finds no error here.
Giving little weight to opinion of treating physician
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he gave little weight to the opinions
of Dr. Clement Aluyi. In particular, plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ’s decision to
give little weight to Dr. Aluyi’s June 2015 opinion that plaintiff “may” not be able
to maintain an eight-hour workday on a consistent basis, would “likely” miss one
to two days of work per month, and would possibly suffer adverse side effects
from medication. (Tr. 1223).
The ALJ must give “substantial or considerable weight” to the opinion of a
treating physician unless good cause is shown. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks and citation 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. The ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for affording less
weight to a treating physician’s opinions. Id.
The ALJ’s decision to give Dr. Aluyi’s opinion little weight is supported by
As the ALJ pointed out, Dr. Aluyi’s opinions were
inconsistent with the diagnostic imaging of record, his own treatment notes, and
the effectiveness of conservative treatment. As the Court has already noted, the
diagnostic imaging of record showed a very mild disc bulge as well as imaging
showing well-maintained disc space and an xray indicating unremarkable findings.
Dr. Aluyi’s treatment notes also indicate conservative treatment with some pain
improvement and ability to perform activities of daily living such as bathing,
walking, and housekeeping. (Id. at 779-825). Moreover, Dr. Aluyi noted on
several occasions that plaintiff had no obvious adverse effects of medication which
conflicted with his June 2015 opinion regarding possible side effects from
medication. (Id. at 779-825, 1179-99, 1223). Dr. Aluyi’s June 2015 opinion is
also inconsistent with his directions to walk and exercise. (Id.).
Finally, there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s finding that Dr.
Aluyi’s June 2015 opinion was conclusory and lacked medical rationale for the
functional limitations noted in it. There is simply nothing in the record to connect
the dots between Dr. Aluyi’s overall conservative treatment and his June 2015
conclusion that plaintiff may not be able to work eight hours in a day and would
miss one to two days of work a month. Consequently, the Court finds that the ALJ
did not err in this regard either. See Forsyth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 503 F. App'x
892, 894 (11th Cir. 2013) (“Forsyth also claims that the ALJ erred by rejecting Dr.
Chodosh's opinion that Forsyth would be unable to work up to 30 percent of the
time when her MS was relapsing. Chodosh did not explain how he came to this
conclusion, and his own examination of Forsyth revealed that she had normal
motor function, strength, balance, and gait and that she was able to squat and rise.
The ALJ did not err by concluding that Chodosh's opinion was not supported by
his treatment records.”).
For these reasons, and the Court otherwise being otherwise sufficiently
advised, it is ORDERED that the final decision of the Commissioner is
AFFIRMED. A final judgment will be entered separately.
DONE this December 3, 2018.
LILES C. BURKE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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