Whittle v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 3/7/18. (MRR, )
2018 Mar-07 AM 11:49
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No.: 4:16-cv-01710-SGC
Plaintiff Virginia Whittle brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1383(c)(3) of
the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Plaintiff seeks review of the decision by the Commissioner
of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Based on the court’s review of the record and briefs
submitted by the parties, the court finds the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.
Facts, Framework, and Procedural History
At the time of the decision, Plaintiff was fifty-eight years old, with a high school
education. (R. 23, 25, 50). She was 5’6” and weighed 260 pounds. (R. 58). She previously
worked as a sewing machine operator which is classified as semi-skilled, light work. (R. 25).
Plaintiff stopped working in 2010 when the sock factory where she worked closed. (R. 37, 318).
She received unemployment benefits until November 2012. (R. 318). Since the 1990s, Plaintiff
has experienced problems with anxiety, including panic attacks and problems being around
people when she was working. (R. 41, 59). Plaintiff testified her physical problems involve her
back, which was injured in a car accident, and her left arm which hurts from pulling socks. (R.
The parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 9).
46, 56). She also testified she experiences pain in her heel which limits her walking, and she
must elevate her feet if she stands for periods of time. (R. 46, 48).
Plaintiff’s daily activities include performing self-care tasks, going to church, going to
the store, washing dishes, doing laundry, sweeping the floor, and doing light housework. (R. 41,
45, 319-20). She drives to town and to her sister’s house for visits. (R. 53, 320). She cares for a
dog and prepares simple meals. (R. 212-13). Plaintiff watches television, reads the newspaper,
and calls her mother regularly.
She testified medications help her mental and
emotional issues. (R. 54).
Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB on April 3, 2013, alleging disability since March
16, 2013.2 (R. 14, 102). The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff’s application. (R.
106-11). On July 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing and received a hearing before
Administrative Law Judge Jerome L. Munford (“ALJ”) on March 16, 2015. (R. 112-13, 31-68).
On May 29, 2015, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the criteria set forth in 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520. (R. 14-27). On June 25, 2015, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council
review the ALJ’s decision. (R. 7). The appeal was denied on September 12, 2016. (R. 1-3).
Accordingly, the final decision of the Commissioner is properly before the court for appellate
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations
prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920;
Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination
whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity (“SGA”).
20 C.F.R. §
Her alleged onset date is one day after her previous unfavorable ALJ decision. (R. 72-84).
See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986) (ALJ decision final for the purposes of judicial review
when the Appeals Council denied review).
If the claimant is engaged in SGA, he or she is not disabled and the
evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the Commissioner proceeds to
consider the combined effects of all the claimant’s physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet
durational requirements before a claimant will be found disabled. Id. The decision depends on
the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If
the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii),
416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, at which the Commissioner
determines whether the claimant's impairments meet the severity of an impairment listed in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If
the impairments fall within this category, the claimant will be found disabled without further
If the impairments do not fall within the listings, the Commissioner
determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e),
At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent the claimant
from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the
claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, he or she is not disabled, and the
evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to
the fifth step, at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's
age, education, and past work experience, to determine whether he or she can perform other
work. Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work,
he or she is not disabled. Id.
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 16, 2013. At the second step,
Plaintiff was found to have the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, anxiety, left
shoulder pain, obesity, and chronic lower back pain. (R. 17-19).
At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairments or combination of
impairments, although severe, do not meet or functionally equal one of the listed impairments
necessary to constitute a disability under the Act.
As to Plaintiff’s physical
impairments, the ALJ found Listing 1.02, major dysfunction of a joint, was not met because
Plaintiff is able to ambulate effectively and perform fine gross movements with each upper
extremity. (R. 20). The ALJ further found Listing 1.04, disorders of the spine, was not met
because there was no evidence of compression of a nerve root, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar
spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication. (Id.). As to Plaintiff’s mental impairments, the
ALJ found, considered singly and in combination, the severity of her mental impairments do not
meet or equal the criteria of Listings 12.04 and 12.06. (R. 20-21).
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform
medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), with the following limitations: no frequent
stooping or crouching; no more than occasional climbing; no work at unrestricted heights; no
driving; no work requiring production goals or quotas; simple, non-complex tasks; work
primarily with or around things and not people; and only casual contact with the general public.
(R. 22). Because the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work at
step four (R. 25), the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) in finding a
significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 26). Thus, Plaintiff
was found not to be disabled at step five of the five-step sequential evaluation process. (R. at 27).
Standard of Review
A court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one.
The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the
record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal
standards were applied. See Stone v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir.
2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). A court
gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are
supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles
v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).
Nonetheless, a court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for
that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence
standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the
possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an
administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial evidence.’” Parker v.
Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed.
Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)).
Indeed, even if a court finds that the proof
preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
(11th Cir. 1990)).
However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of
claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the
reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987)
(citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the
correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th
Plaintiff asserts the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence and should be
reversed and remanded. (Doc. 12 at 8-12). Specifically, Plaintiff contends she cannot do, and
never has done, medium work. (Id. at 9-10). She also contends the ALJ should have further
developed the record regarding her physical functioning. (Id. at 12).
A. ALJ’s Determination Plaintiff Can Perform Medium Work
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding Plaintiff can perform medium work with
the limitations outlined. (R. 22-25). A Plaintiff’s RFC is the most a claimant can still do despite
her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The final responsibility for assessing a claimant’s
RFC rests with the ALJ based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the record. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 404.1546(c); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238. Relevant medical evidence
includes not only medical opinions, but also medical reports from treating and examining sources
and descriptions and observations of a Plaintiff’s limitations by the claimant and others. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). Although physicians’ opinions about what a Plaintiff can do or the
claimant’s restrictions are relevant evidence, such opinions are not
determinative because it is the ultimate responsibility of the ALJ to assess the Plaintiff’s RFC.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(b)(2), 404.1513(b)(6), 404.1527(d)(2), 404.1545(a)(3), 404.1546(c);
Cooper v. Astrue, 373 F. App’x 961, 962 (11th Cir. 2010) (“The task of determining a claimant’s
ability to work is within the province of the ALJ, not a doctor”).
In her disability paperwork, as well as in her testimony at the hearing, Plaintiff’s
complaints almost entirely surround her mental impairments and most specifically her anxiety
disorder. The evidence shows, however, Plaintiff’s mental impairments improved with treatment
and medication. Medical conditions controlled with medication are not disabling. Dawkins v.
Bowen, 848 F.2d 1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1988). The record establishes Plaintiff’s mental status
exam was normal in November 2013, approximately three months after beginning treatment. (R.
In May 2014, Plaintiff reported she was doing better, and her mental status exam
confirmed her mental status was essentially normal. (R. 24, 331, 333). Although she continued
to report anxiety and depression symptoms throughout 2014, her mental status was again within
normal limits in November 2014. (R. 382).
Moreover, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff’s statements
concerning her mental impairments and their impact on her ability to work are not entirely
credible in light of the medical history, the reports of examining practitioners, and the clinical
findings made on examination. (R. 23-24). The medical records from May 2014, September
2014, and November 2014 showed her thought processes were logical and within normal limits
and her concentration as adequate. (R. 322-48, 368-75, 376-87). Although Plaintiff stated she
has problems with her memory and concentration, Dr. Arnold, the consulting psychologist, noted
normal abstract reasoning and thought processing. (R 319). Plaintiff could mentally calculate
six quarters, recall a span of six digits forwards and 3 digits backwards, perform her serial seven
calculations, and count from twenty to one. (R. 319). Additionally, Plaintiff reported she pays
bills, counts change, and maintains a checkbook. (R. 214).
With regard to her physical impairments, the ALJ found the evidence did not support
Plaintiff’s allegations regarding her physical symptoms and limitations. (R. 24). Substantial
evidence supports the finding of the ALJ.
Although Plaintiff’s testimony about her own
limitations and pain contradicted some of the record evidence, the ALJ clearly reviewed all the
evidence and cited valid reasons for concluding Plaintiff’s testimony was not entirely credible.
Plaintiff’s primary care physician consistently noted Plaintiff’s gait as normal and she
experienced no acute distress. (R. 24-25, 351-52, 358, 372). The consultative psychologist, Dr.
Arnold, also observed that Plaintiff’s posture and gait were normal. (R. 24-25, 319). Treatment
notes from the mental health center described Plaintiff has having no significant issues with selfcare, mobility, and self-sufficiency. (R. 322-48, 376-87). Plaintiff testified she is able to sweep
floors, prepare her own meals, and wash dishes, as well as go to the grocery store, church, and
her sister’s home. (R. 20, 211-15). Additionally, there is no evidence in the record showing
Plaintiff received consistent or ongoing treatment for her left shoulder or lower back pain,
despite having insurance. (R. 25).
The record evidence dated after the last ALJ decision4 contains no objective evidence of
abnormal physical functioning, and Plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proving she cannot
perform medium level work.
Moreover, when the ALJ asked the VE to identify jobs an
individual with Plaintiff’s RFC could perform, the VE identified both medium and light level
jobs. (R. 63-64). Therefore, even assuming Plaintiff was limited to light work, the VE identified
light jobs that an individual with Plaintiff’s credible functional limitations could perform. (R.
Accordingly, the court concludes the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial
The court notes the last decision found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work with the following
limitations: claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but she can frequently climb ramps or stairs, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; she cannot work around hazardous or moving machinery or at unprotected heights.
(R. 76-77). Further, because of her mental impairments, the earlier decision stated claimant can only remember,
understand, and carry out simple, not detailed or complex, instructions. (Id. at 77). She would function best in a
low stress work setting and can handle occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. (Id.).
She should not be required to perform “tandem tasks” to complete her normal work assignments. (Id.).
B. ALJ’s Duty to Develop the Record with Regard to Physical Functioning
A social security Plaintiff must prove that she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912; Jones v.
Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Although the plaintiff bears the burden of
submitting medical evidence to prove disability, 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(c), the ALJ has a duty to
fully and fairly develop the record, even where the claimant is represented by counsel. Cowart v.
Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir. 1981). The regulations state the ALJ may ask the
claimant to attend a consultative examination at the Commissioner’s expense, but only after the
ALJ has given “full consideration to whether the additional information needed” and considered
the evidence “readily available from the records of [the plaintiff’s] medical sources.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1519a(a)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(b)(2).
The regulations “normally require” a
consultative examination only when necessary information is not in the record and cannot be
obtained from the claimant’s treating medical sources or other medical sources. 20 C.F.R. §
Here, the ALJ was not required to provide a consultative exam regarding Plaintiff’s
physical impairments. Throughout her paperwork, Plaintiff alleged she was unable to work
based solely on her mental impairments. (R. 223-38). She did not indicate any physical
impairment on her paperwork and did not submit any objective medical evidence supporting her
subjective complaints regarding her left shoulder and lower back. Without any indication her
physical impairments were disabling, the ALJ was not under any duty to order a consultative
exam. Instead, the duty remained with Plaintiff to develop the record in regard to her physical
impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(c) (plaintiff bears the burden of submitting medical evidence
to prove disability).
Additionally, as discussed above, the ALJ had sufficient information to make a decision
regarding Plaintiff’s alleged physical impairment and, as such, was not required to order a
consultative examination. Plaintiff’s primary care physician consistently noted Plaintiff’s gait as
normal, and Dr. Arnold also observed Plaintiff’s posture and gait were normal. (R. 24-25, 319,
351-52, 358, 372). Treatment notes from the mental health center described Plaintiff has having
no significant issues with self-care, mobility, and self-sufficiency.
(R. 322-48, 376-87).
Plaintiff’s testimony and report of her daily activities also provided the ALJ with sufficient
information regarding her alleged physical impairments.
In sum, Plaintiff has failed to show her due process rights have been violated to warrant
remand for further development of the record. Brown v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 931, 934–35 (11th Cir.
The court finds the ALJ had sufficient information to make a decision regarding
Plaintiff’s alleged physical impairment. The record does not reveal any “evidentiary gaps which
result in unfairness or clear prejudice.” Id. at 935.
The court concludes the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by
substantial evidence and proper legal standards were applied in reaching this determination. The
Commissioner’s final decision is due to be affirmed. A separate order in accordance with this
memorandum of decision will be entered.
DONE this 7th day of March, 2018.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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