Dalton v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 8/1/2012. (JLC)
2012 Aug-01 AM 10:34
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
KENNETH L. DALTON,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
) Case No.: 5:11-CV-1864-VEH
The plaintiff, Kenneth L. Dalton (“Mr. Dalton”), brings this action pursuant to
the provisions of section 205 (g) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 405
(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the Commissioner) denying his application for a
period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security
income (“SSI”)1. Mr. Dalton timely pursued and exhausted his administrative
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant
seeks Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) or Supplemental 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 of statutes or regulations found in quoted court decisions.
remedies available before the Commissioner. Accordingly, this case is now ripe for
review under 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g)2, § 205(g) of the Social Security Act.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Dalton was 42 years old at the time of his hearing before the administrative
law judge (“ALJ”). He completed the twelfth grade. (Tr. 135). His past work
experiences include employment as an industrial spray painter, house painter, and
hospital maintenance worker. (Tr. 85, 151). Mr. Dalton claims he became disabled
on November 17, 2006, due to a back injury, whiplash, daily headaches, high blood
pressure, a history of open heart surgery, poor memory, and depression. (Tr. 129). Mr.
Dalton filed his applications for SSI and DIB benefits on June 21, 2007. (Tr. 117-22).
Those applications were denied on August 20, 2007. (Tr. 100). The Social Security
Administration received Mr. Dalton’s request for a hearing on September 13, 2007
(Tr. 105) and that hearing was held on June 18, 2009. (Tr. 38). The ALJ concluded
that Mr. Dalton was not disabled and denied his applications on August 28, 2009. (Tr.
12). After having his request for review denied by the Appeals Council (Tr. 1), Mr.
Dalton filed this action seeking review of the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 1). This court has
carefully considered the record and affirms the decision of the ALJ.
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) renders the judicial review provision of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) fully
applicable to claims for SSI.
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). This court will
determine that the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a
preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must
be upheld by the court. The ALJ’s legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ’s decision must be reversed. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F. 2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for disability benefits and establish his 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” 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
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 Secretary;
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499, as current through July 5, 2012.
whether the claimant can perform 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 former applicable C.F.R.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561 (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 Secretary 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
The ALJ found that Mr. Dalton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since his purported disability onset date of November 17, 2006. (Tr. 18). The ALJ
next determined that Mr. Dalton was suffering from several severe impairments,
including degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine with a history of fracture at
L2, coronary artery disease and status post 2 coronary artery bypass grafting surgery,
headaches, and hypertension. (Id.). Considering these severe impairments, the ALJ
found that they did not constitute 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, App. 1. Id. In making that determination the ALJ specifically mentioned
that the claimant did not exhibit the objective clinical findings needed to establish
disability pursuant to Section 1.04 of the Listing of Impairments (disorder of the
spine), and that the claimant did not meet or equal the criteria needed to establish
disability pursuant to Sections 4.034 and 4.04 of the Listing of Impairments
(hypertension and ischemic heart disease). (Id.).
Next, the ALJ considered Mr. Dalton’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”),
and found that Mr. Dalton has the ability to perform a limited range of light work.5
(Tr. 18-19). In making that determination, the ALJ emphasized that he did not find
Mr. Dalton to be credible. (Tr. 20 ¶ 3, Tr. 23 ¶ 1, Tr. 25 ¶ 2). He also stated that the
medical source opinion completed by Ahmad Shikhtholth, M.D. (“Dr. Shikhtholth),
indicating a disabling level of pain, was entitled to no evidentiary weight as it was not
supported by the record. (Tr. 23).
The court notes that there is no longer Section 4.03 in the Listing of Impairments.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) states “Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time
with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight
lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or
standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or
leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you must
have the ability to do substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we
determine that he or she 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.” Id.
In light of his RFC determination, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Dalton could not
perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 25). However, considering the claimant’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs in
significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant was capable of
performing. (Tr. 26). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Dalton was not
disabled as defined by the Social Security Act, and denied his SSI and DIB claims.
The court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference, but
may reverse when those findings are not supported by substantial evidence. See
Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Graham v. Bowen,
790 F.2d 1572, 1574-75 (11th Cir. 1986)). In making that determination, the 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)). Mr. Dalton argues that the ALJ's findings were not
supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ “abused his discretion in finding
Mr. Dalton did not meet or equal” listing 1.04(C), disorders of the spine. (Doc. 9 at
5). Additionally, Mr. Dalton claims that “[t]he ALJ failed to properly evaluate the
claimant’s complaints of pain as required under the 11th Circuit Pain Standard.”
(Doc. 9 at 11). Upon review, the court finds that the ALJ did not abuse his discretion
in finding that Mr. Dalton did not meet or equal listing 1.04(C), and that the ALJ
properly applied the pain standard. Thus, the court affirms the decision of the ALJ.
I. THE ALJ PROPERLY CONCLUDED THAT THE CLAIMANT’S
IMPAIRMENTS DID NOT MEET OR EQUAL LISTING 1.04(C).
Mr. Dalton argues first that the ALJ erred in failing to find that he met or
equaled the requirements of Listing 1.04(C) in Appendix 1 of the Social Security
Regulations, disorders of the spine. (Doc. 9 at 5). The ALJ determined that Mr.
Dalton did not “exhibit the objective and clinical findings needed to establish
disability based on disorders of the spine as set for in Section 1.04 of the Listing of
Impairments.” (Tr. 18). On appeal, the plaintiff has failed to show how that decision
was not supported by substantial evidence.
The impairments listed in Appendix 1 are so severe, that if a claimant’s
impairments meet or equal them, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled. See
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
“When a claimant contends that he has an impairment meeting the listed
impairments, the burden is on the claimant to present specific medical
findings that meet the various tests listed under the description of the
applicable impairment, or, if in the alternative, he contends that he has
an impairment which is equal to one of the listed impairments, the
claimant must present evidence which describes how the impairment has
such an equivalency.”
Wilkinson o/b/o Wilkinson v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 660, 662 (11th Cir. 1987)
(citing Bell v. Bowen, 796 F.2d 1350, 1353 (11th Cir. 1986)).
The listing Mr. Dalton claims to have met, 1.04(C), provides:
Disorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal
arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease,
facet arthritis, vertebral fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve
root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord. With: . . .
C. Lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication, established
by findings on appropriate medically acceptable imaging, manifested
by chronic nonradicular pain and weakness, and resulting in inability
to ambulate effectively, as defined in 1.00B2b.
1.04(C), 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, App. 1.
In this case, Mr. Dalton has not provided evidence in support of all the
elements called for by listing 1.04(C). He cites his numerous doctor’s reports which
indicate the presence of moderate spinal stenosis and ongoing back and leg pain.
(Doc. 9 at 7-11, citing Tr. 218, 236-37, 233, 323, 330-31, 335-39). However, these
reports indicate, at most, the first two elements of listing 1.04(C), spinal stenosis and
Absent in these records is any reference or showing of the claimant’s inability
to ambulate effectively, a necessary component of listing 1.04(C). As the Supreme
Court stated in Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 529 (1990), “[f]or a claimant to show
that his impairment matches a listing, [the impairment] must meet all of the specified
medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter
how severely, does not qualify.”
The Regulations define an inability to ambulate effectively as:
[A]n extreme limitation of the ability to walk; i.e., an impairment(s) that
interferes very seriously with the individual's ability to independently
initiate, sustain, or complete activities. Ineffective ambulation is defined
generally as having insufficient lower extremity functioning (see 1.00J)
to permit independent ambulation without the use of a hand-held
assistive device(s) that limits the functioning of both upper extremities.
(Listing 1.05C is an exception to this general definition because the
individual has the use of only one upper extremity due to amputation of
(2) To ambulate effectively, individuals must be capable of sustaining
a reasonable walking pace over a sufficient distance to be able to carry
out activities of daily living. They must have the ability to travel
without companion assistance to and from a place of employment or
school. Therefore, examples of ineffective ambulation include, but are
not limited to, the inability to walk without the use of a walker, two
crutches or two canes, the inability to walk a block at a reasonable
pace on rough or uneven surfaces, the inability to use standard public
transportation, the inability to carry out routine ambulatory activities,
such as shopping and banking, and the inability to climb a few steps at
a reasonable pace with the use of a single hand rail. The ability to
walk independently about one's home without the use of assistive
devices does not, in and of itself, constitute effective ambulation.
1.00B2b, 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, App. 1.
Although there is some evidence that the plaintiff may have difficulty walking,
the ALJ had substantial evidence to conclude that an inability to ambulate effectively
was not present. In support of his contention that he cannot walk, Mr. Dalton
explained that walking on uneven surfaces “throws [his] hips into a little twist and it’s
very painful.” (Tr. 49). Furthermore, he stated that his balance was poor on uneven
surfaces, and that his ankle would swell as a result of heart surgery, affecting his
ability to walk. (Tr. 48-49). Mr. Dalton also adduced clinical documents referencing
that his “gait was antalgic.”6 (Tr. 233, 330). Conversely, some also indicated that his
gait was normal. (Tr. 335).
Regardless, this conflicting evidence does not demonstrate that the ALJ erred
in deciding the issue of whether Mr. Dalton could effectively ambulate, and thus
satisfy listing 1.04(C). As set forth above, ineffective ambulation is generally
characterized by lower extremity functioning so poor that both upper extremities are
needed to aide in moving. Furthermore, the regulations provide that ineffective
ambulation severely inhibits daily activities. The ALJ had substantial evidence to
conclude that Mr. Dalton could effectively ambulate, in spite of Mr. Dalton’s own
testimony and medical statements noting an “antalgic gait.” The ALJ specifically
noted “[Dalton] stated that he sometimes walks a little while shopping with his wife
and helps her some with that.” (Tr. 21). The ALJ also pointed out different doctor’s
notes stating that “motor strength was normal in the legs,” (Tr. 22), and that “[Mr.
Antalgic gait is defined as a limp adopted so as to avoid pain on weight-bearing structures,
characterized by a very short stance phase. (http://medicaldictionary.thefreedictionary.com/
Dalton] leads an active lifestyle without limitations.” (Tr. 23). As a result, the ALJ
did have substantial evidence indicating Mr. Dalton’s capacity to effectively
ambulate. As the ALJ determined Mr. Dalton was capable of effective ambulation,
he did not meet listing 1.04(C).
II. THE ALJ PROPERLY APPLIED THE PAIN STANDARD.
Mr. Dalton asserts that the ALJ misapplied the Eleventh Circuit pain standard
because “he has failed to give adequate reasons for discrediting the testimony
provided . . . .” (Doc. 9 at 12). The court disagrees.
In determining whether to credit a claimant’s subjective testimony of pain or
other symptoms, the pain standard requires:
(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective
medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising
from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical
condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give
rise to the alleged pain.
Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551, 1553 (11th Cir. 1986). A claimant’s statements
about pain or other symptoms do not alone establish disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1529(a), 416.929(a). Instead, medical signs and laboratory findings must depict
medical impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged
symptoms. See id; see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 (11th Cir. 1991)
(citing Landry, 782 F.2d 1551). When an impairment that could reasonably be
expected to produce the symptom(s) alleged has been shown, the intensity and
persistence of the symptom(s), such as pain, will be evaluated based on all the
evidence. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c), 416.929(c).
In applying this test, the ALJ found that there was an underlying medical
condition, but that objective medical evidence did not confirm the alleged severity of
pain. The ALJ explained that Mr. Dalton’s reported pain level of “8-10/10” was not
supported by medical evidence. The ALJ noted that Mr. Dalton’s medical records
revealed only a mild condition. Specifically, the ALJ cited medical records indicating
the claimant had only a “20% compression fracture,” (Exhibit C1F), and that MRIs
confirmed that the condition was not worsening. (Tr. 20). The ALJ repeatedly
mentioned that the claimant’s condition was “mild.” He stated “a repeat MRI scan of
the lumbar spine on October 13, 2006 was interpreted as showing only a mild chronic
anterior compression fracture at the level of L2 and mild multi level degenerative disk
disease with not evidence of significant spinal stenosis.” Relying on this medical
evidence, the ALJ concluded that it did not show a disabling level of pain.
Furthermore, the ALJ determined that Mr. Dalton’s testimony indicating a
disabling level of pain was not credible. In regard to Mr. Dalton’s credibility, the ALJ
stated “the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the
above residual functional capacity assessment.” (Tr. 20) (emphasis added).
The ALJ had substantial evidence to arrive at this conclusion. In particular, the
ALJ mentioned that Mr. Dalton’s reports to doctors of having 3-4 headaches per
month were inconsistent with his statement at the hearing that he had 30-40
headaches per month. (Tr. 23). Also, he mentioned that Mr. Dalton’s allegations of
20-30 “attacks of chest pain” per month and his need to elevate his leg every three
hours to alleviate swelling was not supported by any evidence. (Tr. 23). In doing so,
the ALJ implied that Mr. Dalton exaggerated the severity of his medical conditions.
Finally, the ALJ indicated throughout that Mr. Dalton’s complaints and subjective
allegations may have been motivated, at least in part, by a methadone addiction, and
that Mr. Dalton’s doctors refused to treat him because of his narcotics abuse. (Tr. 22).
Thus, the ALJ had substantial evidence for concluding that Mr. Dalton’s allegations
of pain and other subjective complaints were not credible.
In this case, the ALJ properly applied the pain standard. The ALJ found there
was no credibility to the degree of pain asserted by Mr. Dalton. Although objective
medical evidence demonstrated underlying infirmities, the evidence was so mild that
it did not confirm Mr. Dalton’s allegations of the severity of his pain and his medical
condition was not severe enough to reasonably result in his alleged levels of pain.
Thus, this court concludes that the Eleventh Circuit pain standard was properly
applied by the ALJ.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the
submissions of the parties, the court finds that the Commissioner’s final decision is
supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner applied the proper legal
standard. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed by separate
DONE this the 1st day of August, 2012.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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