Geer v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 7/31/14. (ASL)
2014 Jul-31 PM 04:03
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Acting Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Case No. 4:12-CV-03546-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 1383(c), claimant Debra Geer (“Ms. Geer”) seeks
judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security1
(“Commissioner”), affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) who denied Ms. Geer’s claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”).
(Doc. 1). As discussed below, the Court finds that the Commissioner did not apply
the correct legal standards. Consequently, the Court reverses and remands the
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security on February 14, 2013.
Therefore, she should be substituted for Commissioner Michael J. Astrue as Defendant in this
suit. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d) (“An action does not abate when a public officer who is a party in
an official capacity dies, resigns, or otherwise ceases to hold office while the action is pending.
Later opinions should be in the substituted party’s name, but any misnomer affecting the parties’
substantial rights must be disregarded.”).
STANDARD OF REVIEW:
The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the
ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review,” the Court “review[s]
the ALJ’s ‘factual findings with deference’ and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close
scrutiny.’” Riggs v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed. Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir.
2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record
to support the ALJ’s findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is
such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support
a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not “reweigh the evidence or
decide the facts anew,” and the Court must “defer to the ALJ’s decision if it is
supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against
it.” Gaskin v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed. Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013)
(citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)).
With respect to the ALJ’s legal conclusions, the Court must determine
whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in
the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide
sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis,
then the Court must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d
1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND:
Ms. Geer applied for SSI on November 28, 2007. (Doc. 7-6, pp. 2-4). She
alleged that her disability began on July 1, 2006. (Doc. 7-7, p. 35). On March 21,
2008, the Commissioner initially denied Ms. Geer’s claim (Doc. 7-5, pp. 2-6). Ms.
Geer then filed a written request for a hearing on April 3, 2008. (Doc. 7-5, pp. 78). An ALJ held a hearing on August 14, 2009. (Doc. 7-3, p. 28). At the hearing,
the ALJ gave Ms. Geer a thirty day continuance to secure legal representation.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 32).
On February 10, 2010, the ALJ held a second hearing where Ms. Geer was
represented by counsel. (Doc. 7-3, p. 40). At the hearing, Ms. Geer testified that
her back pain prevented her from working a full-time job. (Doc. 7-3, p. 62). She
stated that her back pain on a typical day was a five or six on a scale from zero-toten. (Doc. 7-3, p. 62). The vocational expert testified that if the ALJ found Ms.
Geer’s testimony credible, then she would be unable to find gainful employment.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 70).
On March 8, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Ms. Geer was not
disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act. (Doc. 7-3, p. 21). First, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Geer had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the
application date. (Doc. 7-3, p. 18). He then determined that she had degenerative
disc disease, a severe impairment, but he concluded that this impairment did not
meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 18-19).
Next, the ALJ found that Ms. Geer retained the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform medium work, along with various other exertional limitations.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 19). Based on this RFC determination and the testimony of the
vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Ms. Geer was capable of performing
her past work as a nursing assistant. (Doc. 7-3, p. 21). Thus, he concluded that she
was not disabled, as defined in the Act. (Doc. 7-3, p. 21).
On August 14, 2012, this became the final decision of the Commissioner
when the Appeals Council refused to review the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 7-3, p. 27). Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Ms. Geer filed this action for
judicial review pursuant to §1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as 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 12
months.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 423(d)(1)(A). A 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).
To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Social Security
Administration applies a five-step sequential analysis. Gaskin, 533 Fed. Appx at
This process includes a determination of whether the claimant (1) is
unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe and
medically-determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such
an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration
requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in the light of
his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to
other work, in the light of his residual functional capacity, age,
education, and work experience.
Id. (citation omitted).
“The claimant’s residual functional capacity is an
assessment, based upon all relevant evidence, of the claimant’s ability to do work
despite his impairments.” Id. (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440
(11th Cir. 1997); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)).
Ms. Geer argues that the ALJ failed to properly apply the “pain standard”
when evaluating the claimant’s subjective symptoms. 2 The Court agrees.
The ALJ “appl[ies] a three part ‘pain standard’ when a claimant attempts to
establish disability through his or her own testimony of pain or other subjective
Ms. Geer also argues that the ALJ made seven additional legal errors. (Doc. 9, p. 2). Because
the Court finds the first issue meritorious, it will not address her additional arguments.
symptoms.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995). “The pain
standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2)
objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising
from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of
such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.”
Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). A claimant’s testimony
coupled with evidence that meets this standard “is itself sufficient to support a
finding of disability.” Id. (citation omitted).
“If the ALJ decides not to credit a claimant’s testimony as to her pain, he
must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Foote, 67 F.3d at
If the ALJ does not explicitly state that he found the testimony
incredible, “the implication must be so clear as to amount to a specific credibility
finding.” Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1255 (11th Cir. 1983). Thus, the
ALJ need not make his credibility conclusion explicit, if it obviously follows from
“explicit and adequate reasons.” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62 (emphasis added).
In the present case, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ’s reasoning
clearly indicates that he found Ms. Geer’s testimony incredible. (Doc. 10, pp. 610). The ALJ noted that a lumbar spine x-ray “revealed only a minimal annular
bulge at L4-5” with “no stenosis or disc extrusion.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 19). He cited
Ms. Geer’s MRIs that indicated a “moderate herniation at C5-6” and “a moderate
sized disc bulge at L2-3.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 19).
The ALJ stated that Ms. Geer consistently reported that her medications
“were working well.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 19). Further, he noted that her pain medicine
was “tapered down to only Neurontin, Soma and Methadone.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 20).
The ALJ cited Dr. Whitney’s review of the medical record and Dr. Whitney’s
conclusions that Ms. Geer could frequently lift 25 pounds and stand/walk for six
hours in an eight hour work day. (Doc. 7-3, p. 20). The ALJ also summarized the
testimony of Dr. Cloninger, a medical expert. The ALJ wrote:
Dr. Cloninger testified that there was simply no objective medical
evidence that would cause radiculopathy or the claimant’s alleged
back pain. He further testified that this condition would not cause any
leg discomfort of any kind. Dr. Cloninger reiterated that the
claimant’s degenerative disc disease could cause some low back pain
but no lower extremity problems.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 20). The ALJ noted that Ms. Geer had not been treated by a
neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon. (Doc. 7-3, p. 20). Based on this analysis,
the Commissioner avers that “substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that
Plaintiff’s allegations of disabling pain and functional limitations were not entirely
credible.” (Doc. 10, p. 10).
The Court does not share the conclusion that a credibility finding is implicit
in the ALJ’s reasoning. The ALJ’s decision does not indicate whether he found
that the objective evidence did not satisfy the pain standard requirements or that
Ms. Geer’s testimony was incredible.3 In a similar situation, the Eleventh Circuit
The decision by the ALJ contains no indication that he applied this
standard [the pain standard]. His findings contain only the bare
conclusion that “the claimant is capable of undertaking a full range of
sedentary and light exertion....” …
Neither did the ALJ make findings on whether Holt's claims of pain
and other subjective symptoms satisfied the second or third prongs of
the pain standard. The findings contain no indication that he
considered whether Holt’s claims were either confirmed by objective
medical evidence or could reasonably have been expected to give rise
to the pain alleged. In short, the ALJ did not apply the pain standard
as is required by law.
Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991).
In the present case, the ALJ did not mention the pain standard or its
objective requirements. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 19-20). He did not apply parts (2) and (3)
to Ms. Geer’s objectively determinable impairment or make a determination on
Ms. Geer’s credibility. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 19-20). Thus, “the ALJ did not apply the
pain standard as is required by law.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223.
The Commissioner’s argument that substantial evidence would have
supported discrediting Ms. Geer’s testimony is inapposite.
Simply put, the
Commissioner did not make such a determination, explicitly or implicitly. The
In fact, by regulation, the lack of objective support cited by Dr. Cloninger was not a reason to
discredit the plaintiff’s testimony. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(2) (“[The Commissioner] will
not reject your statements about the intensity and persistence of your pain or other symptoms or
about the effect your symptoms have on your ability to work solely because the available
objective medical evidence does not substantiate your statements.”).
Court – and Ms. Geer – is left to wonder as to the basis of his decision. The Court
will not “affirm simply because some rationale might have supported the ALJ's
conclusion. Such an approach would not advance the ends of reasoned decision
making.” Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (footnote
For the reasons outlined above, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not
apply the proper legal standards. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is
due to be reversed and remanded for proper application of the pain standard. The
Court will enter a separate order consistent with this memorandum of opinion.
DONE and ORDERED this 31st day of July, 2014.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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