Pigg v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION as more fully set out in order. Signed by Magistrate Judge Herman N Johnson, Jr on 08/09/18. (SPT )
2018 Aug-09 AM 09:29
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MELISSA ANN PIGG,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL
Acting Commissioner of
) Case No. 3:17-cv-01080-HNJ
Plaintiff, Melissa Ann Pigg, seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
of an adverse, final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), regarding her claim for Disability
Insurance Benefits (DIB). The court has carefully considered the record, and for the
reasons expressed herein, AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s decision.
LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW
To qualify for disability benefits and establish entitlement for a period of
disability, the claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the
Regulations promulgated thereunder.
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 of 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.
In determining whether a claimant suffers a disability, the Commissioner,
through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), works through a five-step sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon the claimant on
the first four steps of this five-step process; the Commissioner sustains the burden at
step five, if the evaluation proceeds that far. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th
In the first step, the claimant cannot be currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove the impairment is
“severe” in that it “significantly limits [the] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities . . . .” Id. at § 404.1520(c).
At step three, the evaluator must conclude the claimant is disabled if the
impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00–114.02. Id. at § 404.1520(d). If a
claimant’s impairment meets the applicable criteria at this step, that claimant’s
impairments would prevent any person from performing substantial gainful activity.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1525, 416.920(a)(4)(iii). That is, a claimant who
satisfies steps one and two qualifies automatically for disability benefits if the claimant
suffers a listed impairment. See Jones, 190 F.3d at 1228 (“If, at the third step, [the
claimant] proves that [an] impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals
a listed impairment, [the claimant] is automatically found disabled regardless of age,
education, or work experience.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).
If the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or
medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step where
the claimant demonstrates an incapacity to meet the physical and mental demands of
past relevant work.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
At this step, the evaluator must
determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform the requirements of past relevant work.
See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments does
not prevent performance of past relevant work, the evaluator will determine the
claimant is not disabled. See id.
If the claimant is successful at the preceding step, the fifth step shifts the
burden to the Commissioner to provide evidence, considering the claimant’s RFC,
age, education and past work experience, that the claimant is capable of performing
other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(g). If the claimant can perform other work, the
evaluator will not find the claimant disabled.
See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the claimant cannot
perform other work, the evaluator will find the claimant disabled.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
The court reviews the ALJ’s “‛decision with deference to the factual findings
and close scrutiny of the legal conclusions.’” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm’r, Social Sec.
Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143,
1145 (11th Cir. 1991)).
The court must determine whether substantial evidence
supports the Commissioner’s decision and whether the Commissioner applied the
proper legal standards. Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir.
2011). Although the 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) (citations omitted), the court “may not
decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of
the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
“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. (citations
omitted). Nonetheless, substantial evidence exists even if the evidence preponderates
against the Commissioner’s decision. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
In her opinion, the ALJ first determined that Pigg met the Social Security Act’s
insured status requirements through December 31, 2017. (Tr. 14). Applying the fivestep sequential process, the ALJ found at step one that Pigg had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of January 25, 2013, through
the date of the ALJ’s opinion, May 17, 2016. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that
Pigg suffers the following severe impairments: anxiety and depression. (Id.). At step
three, the ALJ concluded that Pigg’s impairment or combination of impairments did
not meet or medically equal any impairment for presumptive disability listed in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15-16).
Next, the ALJ found that Pigg exhibited the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following
non-exertional limitations: the claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions and tasks; limited to jobs involving casual interaction and
contact with coworkers and the general public; limited to jobs with infrequent, and
well explained workplace changes; and is able to concentrate for two hours at a time
sufficient to complete an eight hour day. (Tr. 17).
At step four, the ALJ found that Pigg cannot perform her past relevant work as
a bookkeeper, citing testimony from a vocational expert (VE). (Tr. 22). Nevertheless,
the ALJ proceeded to step five, finding there exists a significant number of jobs in the
national economy that Pigg can perform, particularly laundry laborer, stubber, and
cutter II. (Id.).
On April 24, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, which deems the ALJ’s
decision as the Commissioner’s final decision. (Tr. 1-6). Pigg filed her complaint with
this court seeking review of the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 1).
In this appeal, Pigg contends substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s
decision because the ALJ erred in her assessment of the medical opinions, failed to
fully develop the record, and presented the Vocational Expert with an incomplete
hypothetical. (Doc. 10 at 3). For the following reasons the undersigned disagrees.
A. The ALJ Properly Assessed the Medical Opinion Evidence
Pigg contends the ALJ erred by assigning her treating physician’s opinion no
weight and by assigning only partial weight to the consultative examiner’s and the
state agency examiner’s opinions. (Doc. 10 at 11-13).
When considering opinion evidence, the ALJ must give a treating physician’s
opinion controlling weight or articulate good reasons why less weight or no weight is
warranted. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2). “Good cause exists ‘where the opinion was
not bolstered by the evidence or where the evidence supported a contrary finding.’”
Hunter v. SSA, 808 F.3d 818, 823 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d
1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 997)). Good cause also exists if “the opinion was conclusory or
inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436,
1440 (11th Cir. 1997). If the ALJ articulates “specific justification” for the weight
accorded, her finding “will not be second guessed.” Hunter, 125 F.3d at 823.
Dr. Drew Jamieson at Shoals Family Therapy treats Pigg for her anxiety and
depression. (Tr. 288, 306-08). Dr. Jamieson treated Pigg from January 2013 through
July 2014. (Id.). Despite the length of treatment, the record contains a mere four
pages of information from Dr. Jamieson. (Id.). On May 25, 2014, Dr. Jamieson
submitted a letter which denotes his diagnoses, a Global Assessment Functioning
score of 67, and his opinion that Pigg’s “mood disorder is debilitating to the degree it
would significantly interfere with her mental abilities to perform work related
functions.” (Tr. 288). Nevertheless, the letter contains no basis for Dr. Jamieson’s
analysis aside from Pigg’s subjective reports to Dr. Jamieson. (Id.).
Similarly, the remaining three pages are merely a recitation of subjective
symptoms Pigg reported to Dr. Jamieson at each visit. (Tr. 306-08). The only hint of
objective medical evidence that possibly supports Dr. Jamieson’s opinion is a note on
March 15, 2013, stating he “[a]dministered the DES indicating a moderate level of
dissociation.” (Tr. 306). However, no evidence of the test exists in the record.
Simultaneous to her visits with Dr. Jamieson, Certified Registered Nurse
Practitioner Gina Brewer treated Pigg at St. Florian Clinic. (Tr. 204-12). In 2013,
Pigg reported to Dr. Jamieson on March 21 that “sleep was a big problem” and on
April 4 that she had “minimal improvement in sleep . . . .” (Tr. 306). Conversely,
during examination by Brewer on March 27, 2013, Pigg denied anxiety, depression,
and irregular sleep patterns. (Tr. 208). Moreover, she demonstrated normal affect, no
anxiety, no agitation, no anger, and appropriate speech with clear thought process.
Likewise, during a routine visit on March 20, 2014, Brewer noted that Pigg was
“doing well.” (Tr. 204). Again, Pigg denied fatigue, anxiety, depression, and irregular
sleep patterns. (Id.). Notably, she was alert x3, exhibited no psychomotor retardation,
had normal affect, no anxiety, no agitation, no anger, and her speech was appropriate
with clear thought process. (Tr. 205). Nevertheless, on April 3, Pigg reported to Dr.
Jamieson that she had no improvement in her functioning, was staying in bed often,
and had frequent migraines. (Tr. 307).
Further substantial evidence coheres with July 2014 visits with Dr. Jamieson;
Dr. Miriam Drummond, consultative examiner; and Dr. Danny McFall, her internist.
(Tr. 308, 290-95, 299-303). On July 14, 2014, Pigg reported to Dr. Jamieson that she
was having trouble sleeping, had feelings of panic about work, and could not picture
herself being able to function at work, yet she had not worked since she
“resigned/retired” in July 2012. (Tr. 308, 32, 124).
Pigg also met with Dr. McFall on July 14. (Tr. 299). Pigg denied difficulty with
concentration, anxiety, mental problems, and depression. (Tr. 300). On examination,
Pigg demonstrated no focal deficits, and was alert and oriented with normal thought
content and affect. (Tr. 301-02).
Moreover, less than two weeks earlier on July 3, Dr. Drummond reported that
Pigg was oriented to person, place, and time.
(Tr. 290, 293).
She was alert
throughout the interview, maintained good eye contact, and spoke normally and
clearly. (Id.). Moreover, Pigg’s responses were coherent, her thought processes were
clear, and her thinking logical. (Id.). While Pigg struggled in the Digit Span tasks, and
could not spell “world” backward, she could follow both verbal and written
instructions, and demonstrated good use of basic vocabulary and math skills and good
capacity for abstract thinking and understanding. (Id.). Dr. Drummond further
remarked that Pigg manages her medications, manages her finances (with some
difficulty), can prepare simple meals, wash dishes, launder clothes, and drive. (Id.).
Pigg asserts the ALJ erred by assigning no weight to Dr. Jamieson’s opinion
and only partial weight to Drs. Drummond and Estock’s opinions.
elucidated that Pigg’s GAF (Global Assessment Functioning) score of 67 indicating
only mild functional impairment starkly contrasted Dr. Jamieson’s opinion that Pigg’s
impairment would significantly interfere with her ability to perform work-related
functions. (Tr. 21, 288). Further, the ALJ cites Dr. Jamieson’s mere recitations of
Pigg’s subjective symptoms and the lack of any objective test findings. (Id.). The
undersigned finds that the ALJ clearly articulated her reasoning for concluding that
Dr. Jamieson’s opinion is not bolstered by objective medical evidence and is
inconsistent with his own medical records, namely the GAF score he obtained after
Moreover, the ALJ clearly articulated her reasoning for according Drs.
Drummond and Estock’s opinions only partial weight. The ALJ accorded the portion
of Dr. Drummond’s opinion that Pigg suffered moderate impairment in
concentration significant weight and found it consistent with the evidence in the
record and at the hearing. (Tr. 21). However, she assigned little weight to the
portions of Dr. Drummond’s opinion that endorsed limitations on memory
functioning, noting Dr. Drummond’s own observations that Pigg was oriented to
person, place and time; could recall three out of three named items immediately and
after a three-minute delay; and could remember four recent presidents, her social
security number, and the number of months in a year. (Tr. 21). Pigg could not recall
how many weeks are in a year, yet Dr. Drummond opined that Pigg “appeared to be a
good historian.” (Tr. 295).
The ALJ assigned only little weight to the portion of Dr. Estock’s (state agency
consultant) opinion that Pigg “may benefit from a flexible schedule and that feedback
from supervisors and coworkers should be casual and non-confronting.” (Tr. 20).
The ALJ noted the Dictionary of Occupational Titles does not define these
“limitations,” nor are they supported by the objective evidence. (Id.). In the first
instance, Dr. Estock’s findings contradict the objective medical evidence that Pigg
appeared to be able to follow instructions, both written and spoken, and appeared to
be only moderately impaired in her ability to adapt to change. (Tr. 295). Pigg was
cooperative and pleasant throughout her interview with Dr. Drummond. (Tr. 294).
These findings do not suggest that Pigg could not deal with confrontation or criticism
or adhere to a schedule.
Pigg worked at the same location as a bookkeeper for fourteen years, working a
schedule of eight hours a day, five days a week. (Tr. 147). The medical evidence first
records Pigg’s complaints of depression in 2006, yet she continued working eight
hours a day for six more years. (Tr. 186). Moreover, her job consisted of posting
accounts payable and receivable, making bank deposits, and paying bills on time. (Tr.
36). Pigg remarked that this became impossible, yet she was not reprimanded nor let
go and, in fact, continued working until she decided to “resign/retire” in July of 2012.
The ALJ assigned great weight to the remainder of Dr. Estock’s opinion,
finding it consistent with the record as a whole. (Tr. 20). See Forrester v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 455 F. App’x 899, 902-3 (11th Cir. 2012) (finding no error where the ALJ credited
the opinion of non-treating sources over a treating one when the ALJ properly
explained the weight it gave to various medical opinions and clearly articulated its
reasons.). For the foregoing reasons, the undersigned finds the ALJ did not commit
reversible error in her assignment of weight to the medical opinion evidence.
B. The ALJ Did Not Fail to Develop the Record
Pigg contends the ALJ failed to fully develop the record by not seeking more
evidence from Dr. Jamieson beyond the three pages submitted post-hearing,
especially the DES test alluded to in Dr. Jamieson’s notes. (Doc. 10 at 14).
Pigg bears the burden of proving her disability and of providing all material
evidence that proves her disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a)-(c). The agency has the
duty to develop a complete medical history for the twelve months preceding the
month Pigg filed her application. Id. at (d)(1). The agency had the responsibility to
develop the record from April 10, 2013, to April 10, 2014. (Tr. 12). “[W]hen the
medical evidence  receive[d] . . . is inadequate to determine whether [a claimant is]
disabled, [the Commissioner] will need additional information to reach a
determination or decision.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(e)).
The ALJ has the duty to develop the record when “the medical source contains
an ambiguity that must be resolved, does not contain all the necessary information, or
does not appear to be based on medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic
techniques.” Id. at (e)(1). “However, when the evidence in the record is sufficient to
support the ALJ’s determination, the ALJ does not have a duty to obtain additional
medical evidence.” Lindsey v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 17-15773, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS
18718, at *9 (11th Cir. July 10, 2018) (quoting Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1276, 1278 (11th
Dr. Jamieson treated Pigg for her depression and anxiety. (Tr. 288). At the
beginning of the hearing, in Pigg’s presence and after directly addressing her, the ALJ
addressed her attorney. (Tr. 29). The ALJ informed Pigg’s attorney that although
there was a one-page statement from Dr. Jamieson, there were no records to support
the assessment Dr. Jamieson claimed in the statement. (Tr. 30). Pigg’s attorney
informed the ALJ that the records were outstanding, despite his prior requests a few
months earlier, the previous Thursday, and again that very morning. (Id.). The ALJ
sought clarification that additional evidence from Dr. Jamieson remained the only
evidence outstanding. (Id.). Mr. Goddard confirmed that it was, to which the ALJ
stated she would leave the record open for ten days to receive it. Id.
Again, at the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ remarked directly to Ms. Pigg
that she would leave the record open for ten days to receive the evidence from Dr.
Jamieson at Shoals Family Therapy. (Tr. 46). The ALJ further remarked that after
that she would assess the evidence in the record and render a decision forthwith. (Id.).
Based on the foregoing review, there exists no dispute the ALJ notified Pigg
and her attorney that Dr. Jamieson’s records were incomplete. Further, she extended
Pigg ten days to submit the records and clarified these records were all that remained
outstanding. Post-hearing, the ALJ received three additional pages to Dr. Jamieson’s
initial letter regarding the relevant time-period. At the hearing, Pigg’s attorney
confirmed these were the only records outstanding.
For these reasons, the undersigned finds the ALJ fulfilled her duty to develop
when she left the record open until submission of the records, subsequently received
them into the record, then considered them with the entire record. Moreover, her
duty to develop the record only existed to the extent the medical evidence received
was inadequate to determine disability.
Therefore, the ALJ fulfilled any
responsibilities she had to develop the record. See Williams v. Comm’r, SSA, 703 F.
App’x 780 (11th Cir. 2017) (finding the ALJ fulfilled his duty to develop the record
where he requested records, received records of the relevant time period, and
plaintiff’s attorney affirmed the record was complete).
C. The ALJ Presented Complete Hypotheticals to the Vocational Expert
Pigg asserts the ALJ erred by not posing a hypothetical that “included her
limitations in managing stress, following a schedule, and responding to criticism.”
(Doc. 10 at 15). “In order for a vocational expert’s testimony to constitute substantial
evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question which comprises all of the
claimant’s impairments.” Forrester, 455 F. App’x at 903 (quoting Wilson v. Barnhart, 284
F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir. 2002)). However, “the ALJ is not required to include
findings in the hypothetical that the ALJ has found to be unsupported.” Id. (quoting
Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1161 (11th Cir. 2004)).
The ALJ found that Pigg’s impairments could reasonably cause her alleged
symptoms, but the intensity, persistence, and limiting effect of the symptoms are not
consistent with the medical evidence. (Tr. 18). Moreover, she concluded that Dr.
Estock’s opinion that Pigg “may benefit” from a flexible schedule and that feedback
and criticism in the workplace should be casual and non-confronting are not defined
by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, nor supported by the record. (Tr. 20). Thus,
the ALJ was not required to include these limitations in her hypothetical.
Furthermore, the ALJ determined Pigg could understand, remember, and carry
out simple tasks and instructions; concentrate for two hours at a time sufficient to
complete an eight-hour work day; and perform work involving casual interaction with
coworkers and the general public with infrequent and well-explained workplace
changes. (Tr. 17). Substantial evidence supports these findings and did not warrant
any additional limitations.
For the foregoing reasons, the court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s decision.
The court will enter a separate order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.
DONE and ORDERED this 9th day of August, 2018.
HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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