Coheley v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER DISMISSING CASE that the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED and costs are taxed against claimant as more fully set out in order. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 9/8/2016. (AHI )
2016 Sep-08 PM 04:05
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner, Social Security
Case No. 4:15-cv-782-CLS
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Claimant, Kimberley Coheley, commenced this action on May 8, 2015,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of
the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”),
and thereby denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance, and
supplemental security income benefits.
The court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v.
Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253
(11th Cir. 1983).
Claimant contends that the Commissioner’s decision is neither supported by
substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically,
claimant asserts that the ALJ improperly considered the opinions of the treating and
examining physicians and failed to consider all of her severe impairments.1 Upon
review of the record, the court concludes that these contentions are without merit, and
the Commissioner’s decision should be affirmed.
The opinion of a treating physician “must be given substantial or considerable
weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal citations 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. (alterations
supplied). Additionally, the ALJ is not required to accept a conclusory statement
from a medical source, even a treating source, that a claimant is unable to work,
because the decision on that issue is not a medical question, but is a decision
“reserved to the Commissioner.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) & 416.927(d).
Claimant previously asserted that the ALJ failed to state adequate reasons for finding her
not credible, that she met Listings 12.04 and 12.06, that the ALJ’s hypothetical question to the
vocational expert did not include all of her impairments, and that the ALJ’s residual functional
capacity finding was not supported by substantial evidence. Claimant withdrew those arguments in
her supplemental brief. Doc. no. 20, at 20.
Social Security regulations also provide that, in considering what weight to
give any medical opinion (regardless of whether it is from a treating or non-treating
physician), the Commissioner should evaluate: the extent of the examining or
treating relationship between the doctor and patient; whether the doctor’s opinion can
be supported by medical signs and laboratory findings; whether the opinion is
consistent with the record as a whole; the doctor’s specialization; and other factors.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) & 416.927(c). See also Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d
1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986) (“The weight afforded a physician’s conclusory
statements depends upon the extent to which they are supported by clinical or
laboratory findings and are consistent with other evidence as to claimant’s
Finally, Social Security regulations provide that the opinions of state agency
physicians are entitled to substantial consideration.
See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(e)(2)(i) & 416.927(e)(2)(i) (stating that, while the ALJ is not bound by the
findings of a State Agency physician, the ALJ should consider such a reviewing
physician to be both “highly qualified” and an “expert” in Social Security disability
evaluation). See also Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1084 (5th Cir. 1981)
(“The Secretary was justified in accepting the opinion of Dr. Gordon, a qualified
reviewing physician, that was supported by the evidence, and in rejecting the
conclusory statement of Dr. Harris, a treating physician, that was contrary to the
evidence.”); Surber v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, No.
3:11–cv–1235–J–MCR, 2013 WL 806325, *5 (M.D. Fla. March 5, 2013) (slip copy)
(“State agency medical consultants are non-examining sources who are highly
qualified physicians and experts in Social Security disability evaluation, and their
opinions may be entitled to great weight if supported by evidence in the record.”).
Dr. Richard Grant, claimant’s treating physician at CED Mental Health
Services, completed a “Mental Health Source Statement” on August 5, 2011. He
indicated that claimant would experience extreme limitation of her abilities to
understand and remember detailed instructions, maintain attention and concentration
for extended periods, complete a normal workday and workweek without
interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, perform at a consistent pace
without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, and get along with
coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. She
would experience marked limitation of her abilities to understand and remember very
short and simple instructions; carry out detailed instructions; perform activities within
a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances;
work in coordination or proximity to others without being distracted by them; accept
instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and respond
appropriately to changes in the work setting. She would experience moderate
limitation of her abilities to remember locations and work-like procedures, carry out
very short and simple instructions, sustain an ordinary routine without special
supervision, make simple work-related decisions, travel in unfamiliar places or use
public transportation, and set realistic goals or make plans independently of others.
She would experience only mild limitation of her abilities to interact appropriately
with the general public, ask simple questions or request assistance, maintain socially
appropriate behavior, adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness, and be
aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions.2
The ALJ afforded Dr. Grant’s opinion no weight, stating:
The claimant presented to CED on March 11, 2011; May 10, 2011; July
22, 2011; and August 3, 2011. During those visits, the claimant’s global
assessment of functioning increased from 59 to 60 to 62. The claimant
was observed to be stable and to have level, appropriate mood . . . .
Such reports are simply inconsistent with the medical source statement
of August 5, 2011, that showed marked and extreme limitations. The
statement is inconsistent with [Dr. Grant’s] own treating records.3
The court finds that the ALJ adequately articulated his reasons for rejecting Dr.
Grant’s assessment, and that the ALJ’s decision was in accordance with applicable
law. See Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 (stating that the ALJ should consider whether the
Tr. 29 (alteration supplied, record citations omitted).
“treating physician’s opinion was . . . inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical
records”). The decision also was supported by substantial evidence of record. Dr.
Grant’s records from 2011 reflect that, while claimant suffered from bipolar disorder,
her symptoms were not as severe as suggested by Dr. Grant’s Mental Health Source
On March 11, 2011, claimant displayed appropriate appearance,
dysphoric mood, normal affect, and full orientation, and she was assigned a GAF
score of 59, placing her at the high end of the range for moderate symptoms.4 On
April 8, 2011, claimant displayed appropriate appearance, expansive mood, and full
orientation, and her GAF score had increased to 60, indicating only mild symptoms.5
On May 10, 2011, claimant displayed appropriate appearance, elevated mood, normal
affect, and full orientation, and her GAF score again was 60.6 On July 22, 2011,
claimant displayed clean dress, normal speech, euthymic mood, appropriate affect,
“ok” thought content, and coherent thought processes.7 She was not assigned a GAF
score on that date. On August 3, 2011, claimant displayed appropriate appearance,
appropriate mood, normal affect, and full orientation, and her GAF score had
increased to 62, again indicating only mild symptoms.8
Tr. 501, 504.
Claimant cannot rest on her diagnosis of bipolar disorder alone, when her
medical records indicate that she experienced only mild to moderate symptoms, and
her condition was steadily improving with treatment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a)
& 416.905(a) (defining a 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”). See also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482
U.S. 137, 146 (1987) (“The [Social Security] Act ‘defines “disability” in terms of the
effect a physical or mental impairment has on a person’s ability to function in the
workplace.’”) (quoting Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 459-60 (1983)).
Claimant also asserts that the ALJ’s rejection of Dr. Grant’s opinion was
“based on the false premise that claimant’s symptoms are always the same, [when]
Claimant suffers from a bipolar disorder which is characterized by extreme mood
swings.”9 The record does not support that argument. To the contrary, the ALJ took
into account claimant’s mood swings and other fluctuating symptoms, and he
nonetheless concluded that claimant’s overall condition actually had improved over
time with treatment.
David R. Wilson, Ph.D., conducted two consultative psychological
Doc. no. 10 (claimant’s brief), at 18 (alteration supplied).
examinations on claimant. The first exam occurred on March 5, 2008, in conjunction
with claimant’s previous application for disability benefits. Claimant reported to Dr.
Wilson that she had been hospitalized for thirteen days during May of the previous
year for an accidental overdose of prescription medication, and she had been
diagnosed with bipolar disorder in August of the previous year. She had never done
any illegal drugs or smoked cigarettes, and she drank alcohol “‘occasionally — once
every two or three months.’”10 Claimant’s thought processes were intact, her speech
was clear and normal, and she was not hyperactive or overly restless. Claimant
denied any hallucinations, delusions, phobias, obsessions, or compulsions.
reported sometimes feeling panicked when she was exposed to crowds. Her affect
was within normal limits and appropriate to the situation. She reported severe mood
swings, including some periods of intense hyperactivity and insomnia. On an
everyday basis, claimant reported sleeping only 3-4 hours a night. Her appetite and
energy were variable, and her insight and judgment were fair. She denied any
suicidal thoughts. Claimant reported spending her time reading, watching television,
cross-stitching, knitting, and using her computer. She did not have the energy for
exercise, but she did attend church two to three times a month. Her intelligence was
estimated to be in the low average range, and she exhibited some mild problems with
short term memory. Psychological testing was
indicative of significant distress and disturbance. She has a lot of
somatic complaints and concerns. She is extremely depressed and this
may be to such a degree that she is not able to function at times. She has
a lot of anger and frustration and she may have a hard time expressing
this in adaptive ways. She is suspicious and she has a hard time trusting
others. She is very anxious and she may tend to worry and obsess a lot.
She has some unusual thoughts, and her thinking may break down under
pressure — there are indications of a possible thought disorder.11
Dr. Wilson’s assessment summary was that claimant
has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she is on medication, but
she does not appear to be responding that well yet. She has shown some
improvement, but she does still have severe mood swings and rapid
thoughts, as well as severe problems sleeping. She also struggles with
panic attacks. She also has migraines which apparently can be triggers
[sic] by certain inhalants, such as perfumes. Her level of disturbance is
so severe that it is highly unlikely that she will be able to maintain
Dr. Wilson assessed claimant with bipolar disorder, migraines, and inadequate access
to necessary medical and psychiatric care, and he assigned a GAF score of 48,
indicating serious symptoms.13
Dr. Wilson’s second examination occurred on June 10, 2009, when claimant’s
attorney suggested that she return to Dr. Wilson “for an update.”14 Claimant informed
Dr. Wilson that she was not currently taking any medication for her bipolar disorder,
because the medicine she had been prescribed by Dr. Grant and at the Mental Health
Tr. 418 (emphasis in original).
Tr. 418-19 (emphasis supplied).
Center made her feel like a zombie. Since discontinuing her medication, claimant had
been experiencing “ups and downs.”15 On the date of the examination, she was in a
manic phase. She reported that she had stayed awake for 48 continuous hours earlier
in the week, and that she was unable to focus on a singular task. She also had
discontinued her counseling at the Mental Health Center because she did not think
it was helping her. She had, however, been taking her migraine medication, and it
was helping her condition, although she did still get headaches after being exposed
to certain odors.
Claimant reported still living at home with her parents. Her daughter was doing
well, and she was “kind of sorta” in a romantic relationship with a man she saw about
twice a month.16 She denied any use of alcohol, illegal drugs, cigarettes, or
methadone. She claimed to be unable to work because of “‘my going into these
cycles — being manic for a few days and going into a depressed state — I take to my
bed and can’t get out for a while and I can’t focus on anything.”17 Her daily activities
included watching television, reading, sitting on the porch, talking with family, using
her computer to play games and communicate through e-mail, and attending church.
Upon examination, claimant was alert, oriented, and appropriately groomed.
Her thought processes were intact, but her speech was rapid and she “did seem
She denied hallucinations, delusions, ideas of reference, phobias,
obsessions, and compulsions. Her panic attacks had decreased, but she attributed that
to staying home more. Claimant reported mood swings, irritability, manic phases,
trouble sleeping, low appetite, variable energy, and crying spells, but she had no
suicidal ideation. She exhibited good mental control, low-average intelligence, and
mild problems with short-term memory. Psychological testing again was
indicative of significant distress and disturbance. She has serious
somatic complaints and concerns. She is extremely depressed and this
may be to such a degree that she is not able to function at times. Her
mood is likely to be a serious problem for her and she may often feel
helpless and hopeless. She also is very angry and frustrated at times,
and this may cause her problems. She may have a hard time expressing
this in adaptive ways. She may also have problems dealing with rules
and regulations and those in a position of authority because of this. She
is suspicious and she has a hard time trusting others. She is very
anxious and she may tend to worry and obsess a lot. She has some
unusual thoughts, and her thinking may break down under pressure —
there are indications of a possible thought disorder. She may also have
some manic tendencies.19
Dr. Wilson’s assessment summary was:
Ms. Coheley continues to present with problems related to bipolar
disorder and it is unfortunate that she has not been able to get the
medication and treatment that she needs. She has been on medication,
but she has not been able to find the right combination, and her report
suggests that at times she has been over-medicated. She is not on
Tr. 425 (emphasis in original).
medication now, and she has hardly been sleeping at all, and when she
was seen, she was in a manic phase. She does still have severe mood
swings and rapid thoughts, as well as severe problems sleeping. She
also struggles with panic attacks although these may be less frequent,
simply because she does not get out much. She also has migraines
which apparently can be triggered by certain inhalants, such as
perfumes. Her overall level of disturbance is so severe that it is highly
unlikely that she will be able to maintain employment. It is also unlikely
that her condition or status will improve in the next 12 months.20
Dr. Wilson assessed claimant with bipolar disorder, most recent episode manic,
migraines, and inadequate access to necessary medical or psychiatric care. Her GAF
score remained at 48, continuing to indicate serious symptoms.21
The ALJ afforded Dr. Wilson’s opinions only little weight, stating that,
while Dr. Wilson did actually examine the claimant, there is no evidence
that he had access to the claimant’s entire medical record. His opinions
appeared to be based solely on two examinations and the claimant’s selfreport. Dr. Wilson opined that the claimant’s “level of disturbance was
so severe that it was unlikely that she would be able to maintain
employment.” This opinion is simply not consistent with the medical
record as a whole. Additionally, two years after these opinions were
rendered (in May 2011), the claimant spent time as a volunteer at a
warehouse helping storm victims while making presentations to CED
where she received global assessments of functioning with consistent
steady increases over a six-month period from March through August
2011. Therefore, little weight is given to his assessments.22
The ALJ’s observation that Dr. Wilson did not have access to claimant’s
medical records appears to be incorrect. As claimant points out, her attorney’s
Tr. 425 (emphasis supplied).
engagement letter to Dr. Wilson enclosed CED records from January 3, 2002 to
January 18, 2008, and Gadsden Psychological Services records from March 5, 2008.23
Even so, Dr. Wilson would not have had access to claimant’s more recent records,
particularly those from 2011, because they did not exist at the time of Dr. Wilson’s
evaluations. As discussed above, the 2011 records indicate that claimant exhibited
no more than moderate symptoms, and her condition improved over a treatment
period of approximately six months. Accordingly, the ALJ’s finding that Dr.
Wilson’s opinions were inconsistent with the medical record was supported by
substantial evidence. That reason alone would have been sufficient to support the
ALJ’s decision to afford only little weight to Dr. Wilson’s opinions, even though the
ALJ’s observation about Dr. Wilson’s access to claimant’s medical records was
factually incorrect. Moreover, the ALJ did not impermissibly substitute his own
opinion for that of Dr. Wilson, as claimant suggests. Instead, he permissibly
discounted Dr. Wilson’s opinion because he found that it was inconsistent with other,
more persuasive, medical evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) (providing that the
ALJ should consider whether any doctor’s opinion is consistent with the record as a
Dr. Robert Estock, the reviewing state agency physician, found on January 16,
Doc. no. 14-1 (May 18, 2009 letter from Rose Marie Allenstein to David Wilson PhD).
2011, that there was insufficient evidence to assess the disabling effects of claimant’s
mental and psychological limitations. His only notes were:
37[-year-old female] alleging bipolar disorder, depression, scars
on her lungs, migraines, high blood pressure, & insomnia, with an
[accidental overdose] of 7/25/09 & [date last insured] 3/31/10. Records
show that she sought [mental health center] treatment for Alcohol
Dependence & Bipolar [Disorder] in ‘09 but was lost to [follow-up]. A
[medical source evaluation] was scheduled for her on 12/22/10 that she
did not attend after agreeing to do so. There is insufficient evidence
available of a disability relating to the period before the insured status
was last met. Because the claimant did not keep the scheduled
appointment, there is also insufficient evidence available to completely
assess her current condition.24
The ALJ afforded “some weight” to Dr. Estock’s evaluation, stating:
Dr. Estock observed that as of January 2011, there was simply
insufficient evidence from which to assess the claimant’s condition as
to any severe mental impairment. Dr. Estock did not have access to the
later evidence that showed some impairment, but consistent progress
with treatment in 2011. Therefore, some weight is given to the extent
that his assessment was consistent with the records at the time it was
To the extent claimant is asserting that the ALJ should not have afforded Dr.
Estock’s notes any weight for the sole reason he was a state agency physician who
only reviewed claimant’s records but did not examine claimant, that argument is not
persuasive. As discussed above, an ALJ may rely upon the opinion of a state agency
physician if it is reliable and supported by the record.
Tr. 367 (alterations supplied).
See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(e)(2)(i) & 416.927(e)(2)(i); Oldham, 660 F.2d at 1084; Surber, 2013 WL
806325, at *5. Here, the ALJ only credited Dr. Estock’s opinion to the extent it was
supported by the medical records available at the time the opinion was rendered.
Claimant has not asserted any other arguments about how the ALJ may have
improperly considered Dr. Estock’s opinion, and this court can discern no error. In
any event, Dr. Estock’s opinion appears to have had little effect on the ALJ’s
decision, because Dr. Estock rendered the opinion in January of 2011, but the ALJ
relied primarily upon medical records from later that year to find that claimant was
Claimant next asserts that the ALJ failed to consider certain of her impairments
as “severe,” and failed to consider all of her impairments, including those that are not
severe, in evaluating her disability. The ALJ found that claimant had only two severe
impairments: affective disorder and migraine headaches.26 Claimant asserts that the
ALJ also should have classified her depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks,
insomnia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and hypertension as severe impairments. Social
Security regulations define a “severe” impairment as one that “significantly limits [a
claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(c), 416.920(c) (alteration supplied). Claimant failed to explain how any of
the additional impairments she has identified significantly affected her ability to do
basic work activities. In any event, even though the ALJ did not find the additional
impairments discussed by claimant to be “severe,” he did consider them in evaluating
claimant’s ability to perform work-related activities.27 That was in accordance with
Social Security regulations, which state the following with regard to the
Commissioner’s duty in evaluating multiple impairments:
In determining whether your physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of a sufficient medical severity that such impairment or
impairments could be the basis of eligibility under the law, we will
consider the combined effect of all of your impairments without regard
to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of
sufficient severity. If we do find a medically severe combination of
impairments, the combined impact of the impairments will be considered
throughout the disability determination process. If we do not find that
you have a medically severe combination of impairments, we will
determine that you are not disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 1523. See also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(e), 416.945(e) (stating that, when
the claimant has any severe impairment, the ALJ is required to assess the limiting
effects of all of the claimant’s impairments — including those that are not severe —
in determining the claimant’s residual functional capacity).
See Tr. 23-30. The sole exception is claimant’s carpal tunnel syndrome, which is not
discussed in the ALJ’s decision. That omission did not constitute error, however, because claimant
did not mention that impairment in her application for disability benefits or during the administrative
hearing. As the Commissioner points out, an ALJ has no duty to consider an impairment that has
not been raised at any point during the administrative process. See Robinson v. Astrue, 365 F. App’x
993, 995 (11th Cir. 2010) (“Here, Robinson, who was represented at the hearing before the ALJ, did
not allege that she was disabled due to CFS either when she filed her claim or at her May 2006
hearing. Consequently, the ALJ had no duty to consider Robinson’s CFS diagnosis.”) (citing Pena
v. Chater, 76 F.3d 906, 909 (8th Cir. 1996)).
Moreover, even if the ALJ erred in failing to classify claimant’s depression,
bipolar disorder, panic attacks, insomnia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and hypertension
as severe impairments, any such error would have been harmless. As the Eleventh
Circuit explained in Medina v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 637 F. App’x 490 (11th Cir. 2016):
Step two of the [five-step process for adjudicating Social Security
claims, during which the Commissioner must determine whether the
claimant has a severe impairment] merely “acts as a filter” Jamison v.
Bowen, 814 F.2d 585, 588 (11th Cir. 1987). In other words, “if no
severe impairment is shown the claim is denied, but the finding of any
severe impairment, whether or not it qualifies as a disability and whether
or not it results from a single severe impairment or a combination of
impairments that together qualify as severe, is enough” to proceed with
the rest of the five-step analysis. Id. Thus, even if [the claimant’s] other
conditions should have been categorized as severe impairments, any
error was harmless because the ALJ determined that her obesity and
“thyroid cancer status post total thyroidectomy” were severe
impairments, allowing him to move onto step three of the test. See
Diorio v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 726, 728 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding that the
complained-of error was harmless because it did not impact the step
being challenged); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
Medina, 2016 WL 66699, at *2 (alterations supplied).
Conclusion and Order
Consistent with the foregoing, the court concludes the ALJ’s decision was
based upon substantial evidence and in accordance with applicable legal standards.
Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Costs are taxed
against claimant. The Clerk is directed to close this file.
DONE this 8th day of September, 2016.
United States District Judge
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