Hunt v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 11/18/2016. (JLC)
2016 Nov-18 PM 02:08
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
) Case No.: 4:15-CV-2267-VEH
Plaintiff Deric Hunt (“Mr. Hunt”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. He seeks review of a final adverse decision
of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who
denied his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).1 Mr. Hunt timely
pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies available before the
Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).2
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant seeks
SSI or Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). However, separate, parallel statutes and regulations
exist for SSI and DIB 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.
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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Hunt was 37 years old at the time of his hearing before the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 21, 105). He has completed the twelfth grade. (Tr. 21, 38).
His past work experience includes employment as a material handler, construction
worker, heavy equipment operator, dishwasher, poultry hanger, and poultry operator.
(Tr. 21, 153-59). He claims he became disabled on October 10, 2012, due to asthma
and back pain. (Tr. 12, 15, 105). His last period of work ended on October 10, 2012.
On October 10, 2012, Mr. Hunt protectively filed a Title XVI application for
SSI. (Tr. 12, 105-10). On December 3, 2012, the Commissioner initially denied these
claims. (Tr. 12). Mr. Hunt timely filed a written request for a hearing on December
26, 2012. (Tr. 6-8, 12). The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on March 28,
2014. (Tr. 12, 29-52). On May 29, 2014, he issued his opinion concluding Mr. Hunt
was not disabled and denying him benefits. (Tr. 12-22). Mr. Hunt timely petitioned
the Appeals Council to review the decision on June 5, 2014. (Tr. 7). On October 15,
2015, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on his claim. (Tr. 1-5).
Mr. Hunt filed a Complaint with this court on December 15, 2015, seeking
review of the Commissioner’s determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered
on March 22, 2016. (Doc. 7). Mr. Hunt filed a supporting brief (Doc. 11) on June 23,
2016, and the Commissioner responded with her own (Doc. 12) on June 27, 2016.
With the parties having fully briefed the matter, the court has carefully considered the
record and affirms the decision of the Commissioner.
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.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 an entitlement to
disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a “physical or mental
impairment” that “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
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R. Parts
400 to 499, revised as of September 29, 2016.
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
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, 56263 (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.
FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:
Mr. Hunt had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
October 10, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 14).
He had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease, broad-disc bulge at L5-S1 with moderate facet
arthropathy causing bilateral foraminal stenosis (mild); history of
gout; history of asthma (controlled); tendinopathy; Chronic
Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), mild; and painful
bilateral shoulders. Id.
Mr. Hunt did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.
He had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) except he would be
required to have an at will sit/stand option with the ability to
remain on work station in at least 30 minute increments without
significant reduction of remaining on task. He can ambulate short
distances of up to 50 yards per instance on flat hard surfaces. He
can occasionally reach overhead and frequently reach in all other
directions. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but can
never climb ladders or scaffolds. He can frequently balance but
can only occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch but never crawl.
The claimant could occasionally be exposed to unprotected
heights and frequently exposed to moving mechanical parts and
machinery. He should never operate commercial motor vehicles.
He can tolerate occasional exposure to humidity, wetness,
extreme heat and vibration. Claimant can tolerate frequent
exposure to weather, atmospheric conditions and extreme cold.
He should have no exposure to dust, fumes, gases or other
pulmonary irritants. He would be limited to routine and repetitive
tasks and simple, routine work-related decisions. In addition to
normal workday breaks, he would be off-task 5% of an 8-hour
workday (non-consecutive minutes). (Tr. 15).
Mr. Hunt was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 21).
He was 37 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age
18-49, on the alleged disability date. (Tr. 21).
Mr. Hunt had at least a high school education and was able to
communicate in English. Id.
Transferability of job skills was not material to the determination
of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a
framework supported a finding that he was “not disabled,”
whether or not he had transferable job skills. Id.
Considering his age, education, work experience, and residual
functioning capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant
numbers in the national economy that he could perform. Id.
Mr. Hunt had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from October 10, 2012, through the date of this
decision. (Tr. 22).
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)).4 However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
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).
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Walden, 672 F.2d at
838 (citing Laffoon v. Califano, 558 F.2d 253, 254 (5th Cir. 1977)).
Mr. Hunt urges this court to reverse the Commissioner’s decision to deny his
benefits on May 29, 2014, on the following grounds: the Commissioner’s decision
is not supported by substantial evidence, and it conflicts with the Regulations. (Doc.
11 at 12). More specifically, Mr. Hunt maintains that “[t]he ALJ’s decision is not
supported by substantial evidence due to his failure to give Dr. Janie Teschner’s (“Dr.
Teschner”) opinion substantial weight and to properly apply the pain standard in this
case.” (Id. at 14). Because the court finds no reversible error with respect to either
issue, the Commissioner’s decision will be affirmed. The court first addresses the
ALJ’s application of the pain standard.
THE ALJ’S DISABILITY DECISION IS SUPPORTED BY
The ALJ gave adequate reasons for discounting Mr. Hunt’s
subjective complaints about pain and other disabling
A claimant’s subjective complaints alone are not conclusive evidence of a
disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). The Regulations instead require that the
claimant’s subjective complaints must be supported by the medical evidence of
record, which must show that the claimant suffers from a medical condition that is
reasonably expected to produce the alleged level of pain. Id.; cf. Hale v. Bowen, 831
F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (“Subjective pain testimony that is supported by
objective medical evidence of a condition that can reasonably be expected to produce
the symptoms of which the claimant complains is itself sufficient to sustain a finding
of disability.” (emphasis in original) (citing Johns v. Bowen, 821 F.2d 551, 557 (11th
In the Eleventh Circuit, a claimant attempting to establish disability through
pain and other subjective disabling symptoms must satisfy the following framework:
“(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical
evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition, or
(b) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can
be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.” Heppell-Libsansky v.
Commissioner of Social Security, 170 F. App’x 693, 698-99 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing
Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991)); see also Holt, 921 F.2d at
1223 (“The standard also applies to complaints of subjective conditions other than
pain.” (citing Jackson v. Bowen, 873 F.2d 1111, 1114 (8th Cir. 1989))).
Additionally, the ALJ must give specific and adequate reasons for discrediting
a claimant’s subjective pain testimony, Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223 (citing Hale, 831 F.2d
at 1011), and the failure to do so means “that the testimony [must] be accepted as
true.” 921 F.2d at 1223 (citing Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir.
The ALJ determined that Mr. Hunt provided sufficient medical evidence of
several underlying medical conditions capable of producing pain, including
degenerative disc disease, history of gout, COPD, and painful bilateral shoulders. (Tr.
14). Thus, Mr. Hunt satisfied the first prong of the Eleventh Circuit framework for
evaluating pain. (Tr. 18).
Based upon these underlying conditions, Mr. Hunt claimed to suffer from
extensive disabling pain and other subjective symptoms. As the ALJ summarized Mr.
Hunt’s pain testimony from the hearing:
He reported that his medications help a little bit but the pain makes him
break out in tears. He described that they cause him to be sleepy and
have blurry vision. . . . Mr. Hunt described his pain as going from lower
back to his shoulder and down to his buttocks. He stated his legs go
numb especially on the right. He reported that his right foot gives him
problems. Claimant indicated that his foot swells and he feels like he has
needles in this toes. . . . He testified that his foot flares up every other
day and he is unable to walk. For his back pain, Mr. Hunt reported that
he gets up and down, lies down most of the time, and he will get back
up and he can hardly get out of bed. He stated he can sit 10 to 15
minutes, stand 5 to 10 minutes and walk 1/4 of a football field (25
yards). He described that he can lift a gallon of milk but he cannot hold
for any period of time. Claimant testified that he cannot lift his 2-year
old son. He described that his older son cleans up, feeds the dog and
does the yard work; and his girlfriend cooks. He stated that his girlfriend
takes care of him during the day and his son is there in the evening….
He reported that his pain affects his bending. He stated he dresses
himself but with difficulty putting on his pants, socks and bending. He
reported that it is difficult for him to get to the toilet . . . . He described
his pain at the 10-level with medications. Mr. Hunt reported that he took
less medication before the hearing so he could focus. He testified that
his pain is worse in the morning. He indicated that he does not sleep
well, only 4 hours a night due to his pain. Claimant described that he lies
down 6 hours out of an 8-hour day due to his pain. . . . He described that
he gets out of breath [due to asthma] and seasons trigger his
symptoms…. He stated that his pain and side effects from medication
gets him off track and he cannot stay on tasks.
The ALJ addressed Mr. Hunt’s numerous subjective complaints under the
second prong of the framework:
After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that
the claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably
have been expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the
claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting
effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons
explained in this decision.
(Tr. 18 (emphasis added)); (see also id. (“In terms of the claimant’s alleged gout and
back pain, the evidence does not support disabling pain or other limitations that
would prevent him from all work activity.”)); (cf. Tr. 19 (“Overall, the claimant’s
objective medical evidence supports mild to moderate symptoms.”)).
Moreover, the ALJ provided adequate rationale for discounting Mr. Hunt’s
credibility concerning the severity of his pain and other limitations by pointing to a
variety of contradictory evidence. For example, concerning Mr. Hunt’s gout and back
pain, the ALJ emphasized that Mr. Hunt went ten months–from November 2012 to
September 2013–during his claimed disability period without any treatment. (Tr. 18).
Mr. Hunt’s lack of medical treatment within his claimed disability period reasonably
suggests that his pain and other limitations were managed sufficiently during this
extended period of time. Also, the ALJ noted that Mr. Hunt “testified that his treating
physician referred him to a neurologist and orthopedist, but he has not complied.” (Tr.
16). The ALJ appropriately reasoned that the failure to follow up with either one of
these referrals undermined Mr. Hunt’s claimed intensity regarding his pain and other
Additionally, the ALJ relied upon emergency records that contradicted Mr.
Hunt’s subjective complaints. (Tr. 17); (see also Tr. 273 (recording during emergency
room visit on May 19, 2013, of “Pain: 10 lower back” but also reporting that “Patient
states symptoms are of mild severity”) (emphasis added)); (cf. also Tr. 215 (“Quality
of Life” form dated September 10, 2012, indicating “back pain” from “hurt[ing]
back” at work, “did not check it out, now flares up periodically”) (emphasis added)).
Furthermore, the ALJ underscored that when Dr. Sathyan Iyer (“Dr. Iyer”) examined
Mr. Hunt on March 1, 2014, Mr. Hunt “made no allegations of limited activities or
restrictions as to personal care . . . .” (Tr. 17); (see also Tr. 203 (reporting in
“PERSONAL HISTORY” section that “[h]e is single and lives with his son”)). These
inconsistencies constitute substantial evidence in support of the ALJ’s decision, and
no reversible error occurred in the ALJ’s application of the pain standard. Cf.
Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (“Even if we find that
the evidence preponderates against the Secretary’s decision, we must affirm if the
decision is supported by substantial evidence. . . . Substantial evidence is more than
a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.”).
The ALJ appropriately addressed the medical opinion
Mr. Hunt argues that the ALJ’s opinion conflicts with 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(c)(2), which provides that treating sources “may bring a unique perspective
to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings
alone.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). However, this section also provides that the ALJ
is not required to give controlling weight to the findings of the treating source. See
id. When a treating source has not treated the patient for a long time, such as in this
case in which Mr. Hunt saw Dr. Teschner only three times over a period of two
months, the ALJ is not required to give the opinions of the treating physician
substantial weight. (See Tr. 19 (indicating that Dr. Teschner’s records reflected “only
three office visits in 2014”)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2)(i) (“Generally, the
longer a treating source has treated you and the more times you have been seen by a
treating source, the more weight we will give to the source’s medical opinion.”). The
Regulations additionally provide that “[t]he more a medical source presents relevant
evidence to support an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings,
the more weight we will give that opinion.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(3).
Consistent with the Regulations, within the Eleventh Circuit 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 (11th Cir.
2004) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436,
1440 (11th Cir. 1997)). Good cause for affording only minimal weight to a treating
physician’s opinion exists when:
(1) the treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence;
(2) the evidence supported a contrary finding; (3) or the treating
physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with his or her own
Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241 (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440). “The ALJ must clearly
articulate the reasons for giving less weight to the opinion of a treating physician, and
the failure to do so is reversible error.” Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440 (citing MacGregor
v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)
(“We will always give good reasons in our notice of determination or decision for the
weight we give your treating source’s opinion.”). However, when the ALJ adequately
states specific reasons for doing so, and those reasons are supported by substantial
evidence, there is no such error. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir.
2005) (per curiam).
In this instance, the ALJ reviewed Dr. Teschner’s records and highlighted her
observation that Mr. Hunt had no neurological deficits, nor did he have any restriction
to his range of motion. (Tr. 19, 252, 259, 263). Mr. Hunt’s muscle strength was 5/5
in all of his muscle groups. (Tr. 19, 252, 259, 263). All tests for nerve root disease
were negative. (Tr. 19, 264). At a subsequent visit, Mr. Hunt “denied numbness and
tingling.” (Tr. 19). Also, even though Mr. Hunt reported that “he had muscle
weakness and back pain . . . his physical examination at the lumbar and thoracic spine
was completely normal. . . . [as were] his gait and balance.” Id.
The ALJ ultimately gave only partial weight to Dr. Teschner’s functional
assessment of Mr. Hunt (Tr. 21) finding it “to be inconsistent with the overall
objective medical evidence and the physical examinations.” (Tr. 20). The ALJ’s
conclusion that Dr. Teschner’s functional opinion (Tr. 335–341) was inconsistent
with other portions of her records was an explicit and adequate reason for discounting
that vocational evidence. Additionally, as Mr. Hunt saw Dr. Teschner only three times
in a period spanning less than two months (Tr. 247-68), this short treatment window
provides further good cause for not giving substantial weight to Dr. Teschner’s
The ALJ also discussed Dr. Iyer’s consultative examination of Mr. Hunt on
March 1, 2014. Dr. Iyer noted that Mr. Hunt’s gait was normal and he did not have
a need for an assistive device when he walked. Additionally, Dr. Iyer was of the
opinion that Mr. Hunt had no limitations with sitting, standing, walking, handling,
hearing, or speaking. (Tr. 19, 202-13). Dr. Iyer’s opinion was given great weight by
the ALJ (Tr. 20), and Dr. Iyer’s vocational assessment substantially supports the ALJ
decision. Therefore, no reversible error occurred in the ALJ’s treatment of the
medical opinion evidence.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the parties’
submissions, substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s disability decision
and proper legal standards were applied. Accordingly, the court will affirm by
DONE and ORDERED this the 18th day of November, 2016.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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