Green v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 2/24/2015. (JLC)
2015 Feb-24 PM 02:31
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MELINDA ANN GREEN,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
) Case No.: 4:12-CV-1994-VEH
Plaintiff Melinda Ann Green (“Green”) 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 a period of disability, disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).1 Green timely
pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant
seeks Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) or SSI. However, separate, parallel statutes and
regulations exist for DIB and SSI claims. Therefore, citations in this opinion should be
considered to refer to the appropriate parallel provision as context dictates. The same applies to
citations of statutes or regulations found in quoted court decisions.
Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).2 The court
has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons which follow, finds that the
decision of the Commissioner is due to be AFFIRMED.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Green was forty-two years old on her alleged onset date of August 1, 2008.3 (Tr.
24, 213). She has a limited education and past relevant work as a nurse assistant, a
cashier, a cashier stocker, and a sales clerk. (Tr. 723, 765). Green alleged disability
due to osteoporosis, deteriorating bones, arthritis, and disc problems. (Tr. 435).
Green applied for DIB on July 1, 2008. (Tr. 213). Upon initial review, her
application was denied. (Tr. 213). Green then requested a hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Following that hearing, ALJ Jill Lolley Vincent
issued a decision on September 22, 2010 (“September 22, 2010, ALJ Decision”),
finding Green not disabled (Tr. 217-26). Green’s request for review was denied by the
Appeals Council on March 28, 2012. (Tr. 230). She then filed a complaint seeking
review of that decision on May 25, 2012. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed a motion
to remand the case for further administrative proceedings pursuant to sentence six of
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which was granted by the court on October 10, 2012. (Doc. 8).
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.
She originally alleged an onset date of June 30, 2008, but later amended it. (Tr. 403).
Prior to the court’s remand, Green filed a new application for DIB on October
25, 2010 and an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on April 3, 2012.
(Tr. 252). A different ALJ (William Lawson) denied these new applications on
September 20, 2012 (“September 20, 2012, ALJ Decision”). (Tr. 252-60). Following
the Court’s remand, ALJ Vincent held a new hearing on May 3, 2013. (Tr. 31-91).
ALJ Vincent issued a new decision that also found Green not disabled. (Tr. 4-24). In
this new decision, the ALJ considered all three of the above-referenced applications.
(Tr. 4-24). This new decision is the Commissioner’s final decision.
The Commissioner filed an answer to the complaint on March 31, 2014. (Doc.
9). Green filed a supporting brief (Doc. 12) on May 15, 2014, and the Commissioner
responded with her own (Doc. 13) on June 16, 2014.
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. 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
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,
562-63 (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.
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:
The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act on December 31, 2010.
The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the
period from her alleged onset date of August 4, 2008, through her date
last insured of December 31, 2010.
Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe
impairment: myalgias and arthralgias, small disc herniation in lumbar
spine at L4-5 with lumbago, cervical degenerative disc disease status
post cervical decompression and fusion, status post right carpal tunnel
syndrome release and status post cervical surgery, adjustment disorder
with depression and anxiety, and learning disorder.
Through her date last insured of December 31, 2010, the claimant did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically
equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526,
416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that, through the
date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 CRF 404.1527(b) except for the
additional restrictions described herein. The claimant can lift/carry
twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; can stand/walk
six hours in an eight-hour day; can sit six hours in an eight-hour day; can
never push and pull overhead with the bilateral upper extremities; can
occasionally be exposed to extreme cold, wetness, humidity, unprotected
heights, can rarely reach overhead bilateral upper extremities;4 can
occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl’ can understand, remember
The court suspects this to be a scrivener’s error, as this same finding says earlier that
she “can never push and pull overhead.”
and carry out simple instructions; can maintain attention for two-hour
time periods in order to complete an eight-hour workday; can adapt to
changes in the work place that are introduced gradually and infrequently
and can occasionally maintain interaction with the general public and coworkers.
Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any
past relevant work. (20 CFR 404.1565).
The claimant was born on April 26, 1966 and was 44 years old, which
is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date last insured. (20
The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in
English. (20 CFR 404.1564).
Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of
disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework
supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled,” whether or not the
claimant has transferable job skills. (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
Through the date last insured, considering the claimant’s age, education,
work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that
exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant
can perform. (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from August 4, 2008, the alleged onset date, through December 31,
2010, the date last insured. (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).
The claimant has not been under a disability as defined in the Social
Security Act, at any time from October 25, 2010 to the present date. (20
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)).5 However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Green objects to the ALJ’s findings on her RFC for two reasons. First, she
argues that the ALJ erred by altering the RFC findings in the September 22, 2010,
decision and the September 20, 2012, decision only on the basis of a state agency
physician’s opinion from February 2011, without making specific RFC findings for
the period after her date last insured. (Doc. 12 at 9-12). Second, she argues that the
ALJ violated her duty to develop the record by failing to obtain a medical source
statement for the entire period. (Doc. 12 at 10, 12).6 The court will consider these two
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).
Green also argues that the ALJ was inconsistent when she stated that she would not
reopen the applications denied by the September 20, 2012, decision, but then went on to make a
finding of no disability based on those applications. (Doc. 12 at 11-12). The Commissioner
concedes this point. (Doc. 13 at 6). However, this inconsistency does not undermine the
substance of any of the ALJ’s findings, nor is it an automatic ground for reversal. The court
resolves this inconsistency by holding that the ALJ did reopen the earlier decisions by citing
them as bases for her finding of no disability. (See Tr. 24).
arguments in turn.
There Was No Error In The ALJ’s Failure To Discuss The RFC Findings
From Earlier, Reopened Decisions
Green’s first argument is that the ALJ erred in finding a less restrictive RFC
than found in the previous decisions. She reasons that the ALJ should have explained
why her final RFC findings differed from those earlier ones. (Doc. 12 at 9). Green
says that the ALJ’s action “flouts the principle of ‘the administrative law of the case’
in which it has been held error to fail to discuss the earlier ruling or provide reasons
for setting it aside where there is no evidence of improvement to account for a higher
As to the issue of the administrative law of the case, Green’s argument is
meritless. She cites a case from this district, Bloodsaw v. Apfel, 105 F. Supp. 2d 1223
(N.D. Ala. 2000), which, as a district court decision, is not binding, but is persuasive
authority. However, as the Commissioner’s brief correctly explains (Doc. 13 at 7), the
rule in Bloodsaw does not apply to this case. In Bloodsaw, the ALJ whose findings
were under review had previously issued a denial of an earlier application by the same
claimant. 105 F. Supp. 2d at 1228 n. 2. That earlier decision was “law of the case and
therefore binding.” Id. at 1228 n. 6. Therefore, the ALJ erred by failing to discuss the
prior decision, despite finding in her second decision that the claimant did not even
have a severe impairment, without any evidence that her condition had improved. Id.
In this case, on the other hand, neither of the earlier decisions (on September 22, 2010,
and September 20, 2012) were final; rather, as discussed supra, n. 6, they were
reopened by ALJ Vincent at the direction of the Appeals Council. (Tr. 21). Other
cases considering this question have unanimously agreed that a decision that is not
final is not part of the administrative law of the case. See, e.g., Poppa v. Astrue, 569
F.3d 1167, 1170 (10th Cir. 2009), Rudolph v. Colvin, No. 2:12-CV-2934-AKK, 2014
WL 3689781 (N.D. Ala. July 21, 2014); see also Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 790
(5th Cir. 1991) (“When the [Commissioner] remands cases for re-determination, there
is no rule of issue preclusion”).
Green’s general argument — that the ALJ should have explained why her final
RFC findings were less restrictive than found during the previous, reopened decisions
— does not have any other basis as a ground for reversal. Green does not cite any law
to establish an obligation on the part of the ALJ to explain why her RFC findings
differ from those decisions, nor is the court aware of any such rule. Rather, the final
RFC findings must be evaluated on the general statutory grounds, that is, whether they
are supported by substantial evidence and correctly applied the legal standards.
There Was No Error In The ALJ’s Reliance On A Nonexamining
Physician’s RFC Assessment
Green also argues that the ALJ erred by basing her RFC findings on remand on
the opinion of a nonexamining, reviewing state agency physician. (Doc. 12 at 10-12).
She contends that the physician’s opinion was entitled to little weight under Eleventh
Circuit law, and also that the opinion was “out of date by more than two and a half
years at the time of the ALJ’s adjudication.” (Id. at 10). Instead, Green argues, the
ALJ’s duty to develop the record obligated her to obtain a medical source opinion
from a medical expert or consultative exam before making RFC findings. (Id. at 11).
A nonexamining physician’s “opinion is entitled to little weight and taken alone
does not constitute substantial evidence to support an administrative decision.”
Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 226 n. 3 (11th Cir. 1990). This is particularly so if
it is contrary to the opinion of a treating physician. Broughton v. Heckler, 776 F.2d
960, 962 (11th Cir. 1985). However, such an opinion is evaluated under the usual
criteria for an expert opinion, such as the physician’s qualifications and expertise in
Social Security rules, the supporting evidence in the case record, and the physician’s
explanations given in support of his opinion. Ogranaja v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 186
F. App'x 848, 850 (11th Cir. 2006) (unpublished); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(f)(2).
Green cites an Eleventh Circuit case for the proposition “[t]he Commisioner’s
duty to develop the record includes ordering a [consultative exam] if one is needed to
make an informed decision.” (Doc. 12 at 11). In that particular case, the Eleventh
Circuit raised the possibility, without reaching a ruling on the issue, that the ALJ had
committed reversible error by failing “to order a consultative examination by an
orthopedist even though the [Social Security Administration’s] consulting doctor
recommended an evaluation.” Reeves v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 519, 522 n. 1 (11th Cir.
1984). In another case, an ALJ was reversed by the Fifth Circuit for failing to order
a consultative psychiatric examination. Ford v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 659
F.2d 66, 69 (5th Cir. 1981). There, the claimant had been experiencing emotional
problems, which made her unable to work according to a report from a social worker.
Id. The ALJ determined that she not disabled without the support of any medical
opinion, and, furthermore, did so despite the claimant’s request for a consultative
The facts of Green’s case do not resemble these aforementioned cases. No other
physician recommended an additional consultation, and there is a medical source
statement from February 2011 on record as to her physical7 RFC. (Tr. 639-46). Green
does not contend that the record before February 2011 was insufficient. Rather, she
asserts that the record as to her later condition was insufficient and so required a
consultative examination. (Doc. 12 at 10). However, she has not provided evidence,
or even alleged, that her condition changed after 2011. It is well-settled that “the
claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is
Green has only challenged the ALJ’s findings as to her physical RFC. (Doc. 12 at 8-12).
However, there is also a medical source statement on her mental RFC. (Tr. 692-94).
responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” Ellison v. Barnhart, 355
F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003). The claimant, not the ALJ, bears the burden to
provide medical records concerning the period after the filing of the application. Id.
(“The ALJ, however, was in no way bound to develop the medical record for [the two
years after the application was filed]”). Contrary to Green’s assertion, the ALJ’s duty
to develop the record does not entail an obligation to, in effect, order check-ups to see
whether the claimant’s condition has worsened.
The ALJ had substantial evidence for her findings on Green’s RFC. No medical
opinion from a treating physician is present in the record, but the RFC assessments on
record support the ALJ’s findings. The previously discussed physical RFC assessment
by Dr. Sellman (Tr. 639-45), to which the ALJ assigned great weight, reviewed
Green’s medical records, including a consultative examination by Dr. Decontee
Jimmeh. (Tr. 634-7). Dr. Jimmeh’s examination found no problems with Green’s
ability to walk, sit, stand, and take off and put on her shoes. (Id.). He also found a full
range of motion in her wrists, fingers and thumbs, and no deficits in her extremities.
(Id.). The treatment notes on record show complaints of pain and other problems
resulting from Green’s medically determinable impairments, but do not reveal any
limitations greater than those found by the ALJ. Therefore, they also support the
ALJ’s findings. Green has not challenged the ALJ’s findings regarding her mental
impairments, and the court’s review finds them also to be supported by the reviewing
psychologist’s mental RFC assessment (Tr. 692-95), as well as the other evidence on
record, particularly the psychological evaluation by Dr. Mary Arnold. (Tr. 675-77).
For the foregoing reasons, the decision of the Commissioner is due to be, and
hereby is, AFFIRMED. A separate final judgment will be entered.
DONE and ORDERED this the 24th day of February, 2015.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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