Owens v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION - For the reasons set forth herein, and upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the parties submissions, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Diesings claim for SSI is AFFIRMED and this action DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. A separate order will be entered. Signed by Magistrate Judge John H England, III on 3/21/2017. (KEK)
2017 Mar-21 AM 11:42
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
) Case Number: 4:15-cv-01556-JHE
Plaintiff Vicki Owens (“Owens”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g)
of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Owens timely pursued and exhausted her administrative
remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The
undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the
Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
I. Factual and Procedural History
Owens filed her application for DIB on July 23, 2012, which the Agency initially denied.
(Tr. 40-46, 389-97). Owens alleges she is disabled due to diabetes (feet swelling), high blood
pressure, leg pain, thyroid disease, degenerative disc disease (back pain), numbness in her left leg,
and anemia. (Tr. 130). Owens requested a hearing, and the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 73, the parties have voluntarily consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge
conduct any and all proceedings, including trial and the entry of final judgment. (Doc. 19).
held a hearing on December 12, 2013, issuing an unfavorable decision on February 28, 2014. (Tr.
6-20, 24-39). Owens was fifty-eight years old when the ALJ rendered his decision. (Tr. 20, 2829, 86, 131). Owens has a twelfth grade education, and past work history as a sewing machine
operator, receptionist, packer, cashier, assembler of motor vehicle parts, and file clerk. (Tr. 20,
28-29, 37, 86, 118, 131-32, 155-62).
Owens sought review by the Appeals Council, but it declined her request on July 24, 2015.
(Tr. 1-3). On that date, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On
September 9, 2015, Owens initiated this action. (See doc. 1).
II. Standard of Review2
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 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,
In general, the legal standards applied are the same whether a claimant seeks DIB or Social
Security Income (“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 for statutes or regulations found
in quoted court decisions.
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 the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 114546 (11th Cir. 1991).
III. 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.3 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 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.
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 sequence:
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 the formerly applicable C.F.R.
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R. Parts
400 to 499.
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). “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 such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.
IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge
After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation
process, the ALJ made the following findings:
At Step One, the ALJ found Owens had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during
the period from her alleged onset date of March 24, 2011 through June 30, 2012, her date of last
insured. (Tr. 11). At Step Two, the ALJ found Owens had the following severe impairments:
diabetes, hypertension, hypothyroidism, coronary artery disease, myofascial pain, history of
anemia, and obesity. (Tr. 11-15). At Step Three, the ALJ found Owens did not have an impairment
or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15).
Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Owens’ residual functioning capacity
(“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined that Owens has the RFC to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, and no
concentrated exposure to extreme heat or cold. (Tr. 16-19).
At Step Four, the ALJ determined, through the date of last insured, Owens was capable of
performing her past relevant work as a receptionist, as it did not require the performance of any
work-related activities precluded in the RFC. (Tr. 19). Therefore, the ALJ determined Owens was
not under a disability and denied Owen’s claim. (Tr. 20).
Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his 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)). The court,
however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for that of the
[Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination Owens failed to demonstrate
a disability, and the ALJ applied the proper standards to reach this conclusion.
A. ALJ’s Finding That Owens Could Perform Her Past Relevant Work
Owens first challenges the ALJ’s determination at Step 4 that she could perform her past
relevant work as a receptionist. At Step 4 of the sequential evaluation process, an ALJ determines
if the claimant can perform her past relevant work given her RFC.
See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A claimant will be found not disabled if she retains the RFC to perform either
(1) the actual functional demands and job duties of a particular past relevant job; or (2) the
functional demands or job duties of the occupation as generally required by employees throughout
the national economy. See Social Security Ruling 82-61 (1982), 1982 WL 31387.
Owens argues the ALJ’s Step 4 finding is not supported by substantial evidence because
he did not develop the specific requirements of Owen’s previous receptionist job. (Doc. 11 at 10).
Here, the ALJ explained:
In comparing the claimant’s residual functional capacity with the physical and
mental demands of this work, the undersigned finds that the claimant was able to
perform it as actually and generally performed.
(Tr. 19). The ALJ’s finding is based on the Vocational Expert’s (“VE”) testimony that Owens
could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist given her RFC and given that it is a position
consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles No. 237.367-038, which classifies the
position as sedentary and semi-skilled. (Tr. 19, 38). Before the hearing, the VE reviewed Owens’
records, which contain her Work History Report describing the functional demands and duties of
her receptionist job. (Tr. 37-38, 161). Despite bearing the burden of proving she cannot perform
her past relevant work, Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1359 (11th Cir. 1991), Owens fails to
identify how any further development of the requirements of her specific receptionist job would
change the ALJ’s finding. Furthermore, Owens does not show why she could not perform the job
of a receptionist as it is generally performed in the economy.
Because the ALJ found Owens could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist, he
did not need to proceed to Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process or make a determination
based on the GRIDs. 20 C.F.R. § 404/1520(a)(4), (g) (explaining that an ALJ will only consider
whether a claimant can make an adjustment to other work if she cannot do her past relevant work).
B. The ALJ’s Credibility Finding
Owens next argues the ALJ’s credibility finding is not supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ, however, provided a detailed explanation of his credibility assessment, and substantial
evidence supports his finding. 4
Owens has moved to remand this action pursuant to Social Security Ruling 16-3p,
arguing the action must be remanded so the ALJ can reevaluate the intensity and persistence of
Owens’ symptoms. (Doc. 13). SSR 16-3p, effective March 28, 2016, superseded SSR 96-7p,
The Eleventh Circuit applies a three-part pain standard when a claimant takes the position
that she is disabled based on testimony of pain or other disabling symptoms. Wilson v. Barnhart,
284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002). The standard requires: (1) evidence of an underlying
medical condition; and (2) either objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged
pain; or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition can be reasonably expected to give
rise to the claimed pain. Wilson 284 F.3d at 1225. If the objective medical evidence does not
confirm the severity of the claimant’s alleged symptoms but the claimant establishes she has an
impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce her alleged symptoms, the ALJ must
evaluate the intensity and persistence of the claimant’s alleged symptoms and their effect on her
ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §404.1529(c)(d); SSR 96-7p (1996), 1996 WL 374186.
The ALJ addressed Owen’s statements regarding each of her impairments. (Tr. 17-19).
First, the ALJ addressed Owens’ complaints of myofascial pain (Tr. 17). The ALJ noted Owens’
alleged pain in her legs and back, allegations she had to lie down or stretch out one to two hours a
day, and allegations she could only stand for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. (Tr. 17, 31, 3436). The ALJ then explained that the objective medical evidence did not support the alleged level
of limitation. (Tr. 17). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(2). The ALJ pointed to the bone density test
showing Owens to have normal bone density for her age and normal bone density in her lumbar
which was in effect when the ALJ issued his decision. SSR 16-3p eliminates the use of the term
“credibility” and clarifies that the ALJ “will consider any personal observations of the individual
in terms of how consistent those observations are with the individual's statements about his or
her symptoms as well as with all of the evidence in the file.” SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, *7
(March 16, 2016). However, Owens has pointed to no authority that indicates this clarification
requires remand. Because the effective date of SSR 16-3p came after the ALJ’s decision, the
court reviews the case under SSR 96-7p. However, an evaluation of the ALJ’s decision with the
clarification in mind does not require remand. The ALJ did not make any statements to indicate
he assessed the credibility of plaintiff’s character, but rather assessed the statements she made in
light of the objective medical evidence. As such, the motion, (doc. 13), is DENIED.
spine. (Tr. 17, 237). Despite alleged pain in her legs, ankles, and back, Owens had no complaints
of pain or musculoskeletal symptoms at multiple visits to Etowah County Free Health Clinic. (Tr.
17, 400, 423-25). In March 2012, Owens indicated the medication she was given helped with the
pain in her legs. (Tr. 17, 406). As the ALJ also noted, Owens’ reported activities of daily living
did not support the level of limitation she alleged. (Tr. 17). Also, a Third Party Function report
noted Owens had problems with concentration; however, Owens reported she could pay bills,
count change, and maintain a checkbook. (Tr. 17, 150, 168). Owens testified she and her husband,
who is in poor health, are able to complete household chores. (Tr. 17, 32-33). Owens reported
that, along with her husband, she cooks breakfast and does dishes. (Tr. 17, 147). Owens reported
she washes clothes, waters flowers, and does laundry. (Tr. 17, 147). Owens also reported she goes
to the grocery store and has no problem with personal care. (Tr. 17, 148, 150). Owens further
reported she was able to lift ten pounds. (Tr. 17, 152).
The ALJ also addressed Owens’ statements regarding her coronary artery disease. (Tr.
18). The ALJ noted Owens alleged she had chest pain and shortness of breath. (Tr. 17, 112-13).
But, as the ALJ explained, the objective medical evidence did not support the level of limitation
Owens alleged. (Tr. 17-18). Despite Owens’ alleged limitations and alleged pain, she testified
she does not take anything specific for her heart condition. (Tr. 18, 32). Owens alleged she
experiences shortness of breath, but in May 2012, her oxygen level was 99%. (Tr. 18, 405).
Owens’ lungs were clear to auscultation during examinations in May 2013, December 2013, and
February 2014. (Tr. 18, 429, 436, 438). Additionally, in January 2013, Owens stated she had
chest pain but that it was relieved by Aspirin. (Tr. 18, 424). The ALJ explained Owens’ activities
of daily living did not support the level of limitation she alleged (Tr. 17).
With respect to her hypertension, Owens had been treated for hypertension, but it was
controlled with medication. (Tr. 18, 432-33, 436, 439). In August 2013, medical records describe
Owens’ hypertension as doing well, and she had a blood pressure reading of 132/69. (Tr. 18, 433).
In October 2013, medical records describe Owens’ hypertension as controlled. (Tr. 18, 432). In
November 2013 and February 2014, medical records describe Owens’ hypertension as being at
goal. (Tr. 18, 436, 439).
With respect to her hypothyroidism, the ALJ noted there was no indication Owens
complained of any symptoms resulting from hypothyroidism so severe as to be disabling. (Tr. 18).
The ALJ also addressed the credibility of Owens’ subjective complaints regarding her anemia.
(Tr. 19). As the ALJ noted, Owens reported in her initial contact form that her anemia does not
keep her from working. (Tr. 19, 115). With respect to her obesity, the ALJ noted, no physician
stated Owens’ obesity was disabling, and Owens’ obesity was not so severe as to prevent all
ambulation, reaching, and orthopedic and postural maneuvers. (Tr. 19).
evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Owens’ statements regarding the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of Owens’ symptoms were not entirely credibility. (Tr. 17-19). The record
shows the ALJ clearly evaluated the credibility of Owens’ statements against the objective medical
evidence in the record and did not make any determination regarding personal credibility.
supra note 4.
For the reasons set forth herein, and upon careful consideration of the administrative record
and the parties’ submissions, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying
Diesing’s claim for SSI is AFFIRMED and this action DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
A separate order will be entered.
DONE this 21st day of March, 2017.
JOHN H. ENGLAND, III
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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