Edwards v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 3/29/2016. (KEK)
2016 Mar-29 PM 03:41
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Case No.: 4:14-cv-01802-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Jerry Edwards seeks judicial review
of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
Commissioner denied his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits. After careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner’s decision.
Mr. Edwards applied for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits on September 29, 2010. (Doc. 7-3, p. 47). Mr. Edwards alleges that his
disability began on August 16, 2010.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 47). The Commissioner
initially denied Mr. Edwards’s claims on December 24, 2010. (Doc. 7-3, p. 47).
Mr. Edwards requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
(Doc. 7-3, p. 47). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 2, 2013. (Doc.
7-3, p. 44). On August 26, 2014, the Appeals Council declined Mr. Edwards’s
request for review (Doc. 7-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner’s decision final and
a proper candidate for this Court’s judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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 “decide the facts anew,
reweigh the evidence” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal
quotations and citation omitted). If the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence, the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner’s findings.” Costigan v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed. Appx.
783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).
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).
SUMMARY OF THE ALJ’S DECISION
To determine whether a claimant has proven that he is disabled, an ALJ
follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or
combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or
equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of
Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past
relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are
significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant
can perform given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.
Applying step one of the evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr.
Edwards has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 16, 2010, the
alleged onset date. (Doc. 7-3, p. 49). At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr.
Edwards suffers from the following severe impairments:
disease, disc bulge, conductive hearing loss, and hypertension. (Doc. 7-3, p. 49).
The ALJ also determined that Mr. Edwards is obese, but his obesity is not a severe
impairment. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 50–51). Mr. Edwards alleged disability based on
depression, but the AJL found “the existence of depression or a stress disorder
[could not] be medically determined.” (Doc. 7-3, pp. 49–50).
Proceeding to step three, based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ
concluded that Mr. Edwards does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 50–51).
Therefore, the ALJ examined Mr. Edwards’s residual functional capacity. The
ALJ determined that Mr. Edwards has the RFC to perform:
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he has a bilateral
mixed hearing loss that is conductive, but he functions well with a
bone anchored . . . hearing aid and he can converse at normal
conversation levels; he needs a job with excessive noise that is
moderate in nature, with no high frequencies that would be shrieking
in the ear; . . . [h]is overhead reaching is limited to no more than 10
pounds frequently, but he can occasionally lift more; he would need
the ability to have a sit/stand option; he would need minimal
communication with coworkers and the public, and he would be able
to recognize safety factors.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 51).
Based on this RFC, at step four of the evaluation process, the ALJ concluded
that Mr. Edwards is not able to perform his past relevant work as a hosiery mill
knitter and a material handler. (Doc. 7-3, p. 55). Finally then at step five, relying
on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national
economy that Mr. Edwards can perform, including product examiner/inspector,
product assembler, and production line worker. (Doc. 7-3, p. 56). Accordingly,
the ALJ determined that Mr. Edwards has not been under a disability within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 7-3, p. 56).
Mr. Edwards argues that he is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision
because (1) the ALJ used medical terminology when describing Mr. Edwards’s
back condition to the vocational expert, instead of specifying the concrete
consequences of that condition for Mr. Edwards’s ability to work; (2) the ALJ
failed to specify for the vocational expert the nature of the sit/stand option that Mr.
Edwards requires; and (3) the ALJ’s finding that Mr. Edwards has the RFC to
perform jobs at the sedentary level is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc.
11, pp. 15–18). The Court examines each issue in turn.
Description of Mr. Edwards’s Back Condition
In formulating a hypothetical for the vocational expert, the ALJ described an
individual who “would have mild degenerative lumbar disc disease with some
bulging. There would be some bilateral foramenal stenosis by the L4/L5 level but
it would be minimal disc bulge and the L5/S1 would be preserved. It would be
normal lordotic alignment and soft tissues would be unremarkable.” (Doc. 7-3, p.
87). Mr. Edwards objects to the ALJ’s “medical dissertation” because he believes
the hypothetical failed to convey the vocational consequences of his back condition
to the vocational expert. (Doc. 11 pp. 14–15). Mr. Edwards asserts that—without
interpretation by a medical expert—the medical terminology in the ALJ’s
hypothetical did not provide the vocational expert with an accurate representation
of his (Mr. Edwards’s) impairments. (Doc. 11, pp. 13–15).
Mr. Edwards’s argument ignores the distillation of the medical information
with which the ALJ concluded the hypothetical to the vocational expert. After
describing a medical condition that mirrors Mr. Edwards’s, the ALJ asked the
vocational expert to base her answer on an “individual able to perform at a light
level as defined within the Act but I would limit overhead reaching to no more than
10 pounds frequently, occasionally more.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 87). Thus, the ALJ
provided the vocational expert with concrete vocational consequences resulting
from the medical condition described in the hypothetical.
The authority that Mr. Edwards cites supports the conclusion that the ALJ
properly constructed the hypothetical for the vocational expert. See Thomas v.
Astrue, No. 07-3313 PJSRLE, 2008 WL 2942879, at *7, *20–21 (D. Minn. July
25, 2008) (finding that a similar hypothetical was correctly formulated for a
While a “hypothetical does not need to include medical
terminology from the Record,” inclusion of medical terminology in a hypothetical
does not render a question improper. Id. at *20.
Next, Mr. Edwards objects that the ALJ’s hypothetical questions to the
vocational expert failed to provide sufficient detail regarding a sit/stand option.
(Doc. 11, pp. 15–17). According to Mr. Edwards, the hypotheticals were defective
and require reversal because the ALJ did not include in the hypotheticals the
frequency with which Mr. Edwards would require a sit/stand option. (Doc. 11, p.
16). While including definite sit/stand intervals in a hypothetical to a vocational
expert might be the better practice, the record demonstrates that Mr. Edwards’s
sitting and standing limitations were presented to the vocational expert through Mr.
Edwards’s own testimony.
During the testimony he provided with the vocational expert present, Mr.
Edwards stated, “I’m laying most of the day with my legs propped up and when I
get up I have to walk around a little bit and I can’t walk too far.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 78).
The ALJ followed up on questions from Mr. Edwards’s attorney by asking Mr.
Edwards how long he could sit. (Doc. 7-3, p. 85). Mr. Edwards replied, “Usually
about 15 or 20 minutes.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 85). Mr. Edwards also stated he could walk
for roughly five minutes after sitting and spent his days alternating sitting on a
couch and walking. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 84–85).
At the beginning of the examination of the vocational expert, the ALJ
confirmed that the vocational expert had “reviewed the documentary evidence and
listened to the oral testimony.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 86); cf. Easterling v. Astrue, No. 310-CV-0963-BD, 2011 WL 4424389, at *4 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 22, 2011) (finding a
hypothetical defective because the vocational expert acknowledged being unable to
take note of all the limitations introduced through oral testimony). The ALJ added
a sit/stand option to the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert because of Mr.
Edwards’s oral testimony. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 88–89). “Although the ALJ failed to
specify the frequency that [Mr. Edwards] needed to change his sit/stand position,
the reasonable implication of the ALJ’s description was that the sit/stand option
would be at [Mr. Edwards’s] own volition.” Williams v. Barnhart, 140 Fed. Appx.
932, 937 (11th Cir. 2005). Therefore, the hypothetical posed by the ALJ was not
defective, and the vocational expert’s testimony supports the ALJ’s determination
that Mr. Edwards is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy. (Doc. 7-3, p. 55).
RFC to Perform Light Work
Finally, Mr. Edwards contends the ALJ erred by finding he has the RFC to
perform light work and the sedentary jobs identified by the vocational expert.
(Doc. 11, pp. 17–18). Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), an individual who can
perform light work “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.” According to Mr. Edwards’s characterization of the regulation, the ALJ’s
finding regarding a sit/stand option renders him unable to perform either light or
sedentary work. (Doc. 11, pp. 17–18).
Mr. Edwards misreads 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).
The exception in the
regulation for individuals unable to sit for long periods of time means those
individuals will not be presumed to be able to perform sedentary work, even
though they are capable of performing light work. The exception does not mean
that an individual who cannot sit for long periods will never be able to perform a
job classified as sedentary. See SSR 83-12, 1983 WL 31253, at *4 (Jan. 1, 1983)
(“In cases of unusual limitation of ability to sit or stand, a [vocational specialist]
should be consulted to clarify the implications for the occupational base.”).
As shown by the record, the ALJ did not presume Mr. Edwards’s ability to
perform sedentary work. Instead, the ALJ presented the vocational expert with
hypotheticals that included a sit/stand option.
(Doc. 7-3, pp. 88–89).
vocational expert took into account Mr. Edwards’s inability to sit for long periods
of time when identifying jobs that Mr. Edwards could perform, and the ALJ’s
hypotheticals distinguished a situation in which an individual required a sit/stand
option from one in which the individual was capable of sitting. (Doc. 7-3, p. 89).
The vocational expert opined that adding a sit/stand option to the hypothetical
limitations would eliminate light work jobs that Mr. Edwards would otherwise be
capable of performing, “but there would be similar jobs at the sedentary level.”
(Doc. 7-3, p. 88).
Therefore, the vocational expert’s testimony provided
substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s finding that Mr. Edwards could perform
jobs classified as sedentary.
For the reasons discussed above, the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision is
supported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ applied proper legal standards.
The Court will not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Accordingly, the Court affirms the Commissioner’s decision. The
Court will enter a separate final judgment consistent with this memorandum
DONE and ORDERED this March 29, 2016.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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