Mondragon v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge J Foy Guin, Jr on 7/11/12. (CTS, )
2012 Jul-11 AM 10:23
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ELIZABETH ANN MONDRAGON,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
) CIVIL ACTION NO. 11-G-2863-NE
The plaintiff, Elizabeth Ann Mondragon, 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 her application for Social Security
Disability benefits. Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies
available before the Commissioner. Accordingly, this case is now ripe for judicial review
under 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The sole 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. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). To that
end this court “must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached
is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth, at 1239 (citations
omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Bloodsworth, at 1239..
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
In order to qualify for disability benefits and to establish his entitlement for
a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled. The Act defines disabled as the
“inability to engage in 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
months . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(I). For the purposes of
establishing entitlement to disability benefits, physical or mental impairment is defined as
“an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, Social Security regulations
outline a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R.§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The Commissioner
must determine in sequence:
whether the claimant is currently employed;
whether she has a severe impairment;
whether her impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
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); 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 past work, the burden
shifts to the Secretary to show that the claimant can perform some other job.” Pope at
477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner
further bears the burden of showing that such work exists in the national economy in
significant numbers. Id.
In the instant case, ALJ Patrick R. Digby determined the plaintiff met the
first two tests, but concluded that while she has an impairment or impairments considered
“severe,” her impairments do not meet or equal in severity any impairment set forth at 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [R. 11, 15]. The ALJ found the plaintiff unable
to perform her past relevant work. Once it is determined that the plaintiff cannot return to
her prior work, “the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show other work the claimant
can do.” Foote, at 1559. Furthermore, when, as is the case here, a claimant is not able to
perform the full range of work at a particular exertional level, the Commissioner may not
exclusively rely on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the grids). Foote, at 1558-59.
The presence of a non-exertional impairment, pain, also prevents exclusive reliance on
the grids. Foote, at 1559. In such cases “the [Commissioner] must seek expert vocational
testimony.” Foote, at 1559.
THE STANDARD WHEN THE CLAIMANT TESTIFIES SHE SUFFERS
FROM DISABLING PAIN
In this circuit, “a three part ‘pain standard’ [is applied] when a claimant
seeks to establish disability through his or her own testimony of pain or other subjective
symptoms.” Foote, at 1560.
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.
Foote, at 1560 (quoting Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). In
this circuit medical evidence of pain itself, or of its intensity, is not required.
While both the regulations and the Hand standard require objective
medical evidence of a condition that could reasonably be expected to cause
the pain alleged, neither requires objective proof of the pain itself. Thus
under both the regulations and the first (objectively identifiable condition)
and third (reasonably expected to cause pain alleged) parts of the Hand
standard a claimant who can show that his condition could reasonably be
expected to give rise to the pain he alleges has established a claim of
disability and is not required to produce additional, objective proof of the
pain itself. See 20 CFR §§ 404.1529 and 416.929; Hale at 1011.
Elam v. Railroad Retirement Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1215 (11th Cir. 1991) (parenthetical
information omitted) (emphasis added). Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that “[a]
claimant’s subjective testimony supported by medical evidence that satisfies the pain
standard is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Foote at 1561. Therefore,
if a claimant testifies to disabling pain and satisfies the three part pain standard, she must
be found disabled unless that testimony is properly discredited.
When the Commissioner fails to credit a claimant’s pain testimony, he must
articulate reasons for that decision.
It is established in this circuit that if the Secretary fails to articulate reasons for
refusing to credit a claimant’s subjective pain testimony, then the Secretary, as a
matter of law, has accepted that testimony as true. Implicit in this rule is the
requirement that such articulation of reasons by the Secretary be supported by
Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1012 (11th Cir. 1987). Therefore, if the ALJ either fails to
articulate reasons for refusing to credit the plaintiff’s pain testimony, or if his reasons are
not supported by substantial evidence, the pain testimony of the plaintiff must be accepted
THE IMPACT OF A VOCATIONAL EXPERT’S TESTIMONY
It is common for a vocational expert (“VE”) to testify at a claimant’s
hearing before an ALJ, and in many cases such testimony is required. The VE is typically
asked whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work or other jobs that exist in
significant numbers within the national economy based upon hypothetical questions about
the claimant’s abilities in spite of his impairments. “In order for a vocational expert’s
testimony to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question
which comprises all of the claimant’s impairments.” Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229
(11th Cir. 1999).
If the claimant is unable to perform his prior relevant work the burden shifts
to the Commissioner to establish that he can perform other work. In such cases, if the
vocational expert testimony upon which the ALJ relies is based upon a hypothetical
question that does not take into account all of the claimant’s impairments, the
Commissioner has not met that burden, and the action should be reversed with
instructions that the plaintiff be awarded the benefits claimed. This is so even if no other
hypothetical question is posed to the VE. See Gamer v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 815 F.2d 1275, 1280 (9th Cir. 1987)(noting that when the burden is on the
Commissioner to show the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not obligated to
pose hypothetical questions in order to prevail). However, it is desirable for the VE to be
asked whether the claimant can perform any jobs if his subjective testimony or the
testimony of his doctors is credited. Such a hypothetical question would allow disability
claims to be expedited in cases in which the ALJ’s refusal to credit that testimony is
found not to be supported by substantial evidence.
In Varney v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 859 F.2d 1396 (9th
Cir. 1987), the Ninth Circuit adopted the Eleventh Circuit rule which holds that if the
articulated reasons for rejecting the plaintiff’s pain testimony are not supported by
substantial evidence, that testimony is accepted as true as a matter of law. Id at 1401.
The court noted that “[a]mong the most persuasive arguments supporting the rule is the
need to expedite disability claims.” Id. If the VE is asked whether the claimant could
perform other jobs if his testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms is accepted as
true, the case might be in a posture that would avoid the necessity of a remand. As
Varney recognized, if the VE testifies the claimant can perform no jobs if his pain
testimony is accepted as true, the only relevant issue would be whether that testimony was
properly discredited. Id. This also holds true for the opinions of treating physicians.
ALJ Digby found that the plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
peripheral neuropathy; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; allergic rhinitis;
gastroesophageal reflux disease; and hypertension. [R. 11]. However, he found that the
plaintiff’s anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, mild sensorineural hearing loss and
eosinophilic esophagitis are non-severe impairments, “as they do not significantly affect
the claimant’s ability to perform work related activity.” Id.
The plaintiff’s treating physician, R. Charles Morley, M.D., examined her
on June 28, 2007. On examination, the plaintiff had “signs of peripheral nerve
entrapment in her left leg at three sites with positive Tinel’s signs1 at all three sites and
asymmetric [Pressure Specified Sensory Device, “PSSD”] evidence of sensory
polyneuropathy of the left lower extremity.” [R. 215](footnote added). On July 26, 2007,
the plaintiff underwent a three level decompression and neurolysis of the peripheral
nerves of her left leg. [R. 219-220]. On August 9, 2007, although the plaintiff had noted
improvement of tenderness and tingling in her left foot, Dr. Morley still diagnosed
neuropathy and foot and ankle pain. [R. 212].
Tinel’s sign is “a tingling sensation in the distal end of a limb when percussion is
made over the site of a divided nerve. It indicates a partial lesion or the beginning
regeneration of the nerve.” Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 1527 (28th Ed.
On March 4, 2008, the plaintiff returned to Dr. Morley, who noted:
She is no better clinically really. She still has sitting [leg] burning and pain
in her feet when she gets up and walks around and the PSSD studies done
on January 9, 2008, show improvement in two point discrimination and not
much change in one point discrimination on the left leg and in view of her
rather disappointing clinical results are probably unchanged from preop. I
told her at least we could say that she was not worsening as far as her
sensation goes and I apologized that she was not feeling better from the
surgery. I do not think that continued surgery on the opposite side would be
indicated or substantiated by the result she has had thus far and she agrees.
[R. 210]. She returned to Dr. Morley on June 9, 2008, after twisting her left ankle three
weeks earlier, complaining of increased and different pain in her left foot and leg. [R.
209]. On examination, Dr. Morley noted “[t]enderness everywhere I touch, including in
the plantar aspect of the forefoot.” Id.. In August 2008, the plaintiff quit her soldering
job because her leg pain would not allow her to stand.2
On February 16, 2009, John R. Roberts, M.D., a pain management doctor,
performed a left L5 and S1 selective nerve root block in an attempt to relieve the
plaintiff’s low back and left lower extremity pain. [R. 422]. On February 23, 2009, she
was referred to Brian M. Scholl, M.D., an orthopedist, who found, “She does have some
lumbar pain with flexion extension of the lumbar spine. Her straight leg raise is positive
on the left for radicular pain in the posterolateral thigh and medial calf region as well as
into the dorsum of the foot.” [R. 375]3. Dr. Scholl diagnosed a possible acute compression
The plaintiff testified that her soldering job required her to stand 10 to 12 hours a
day. [R. 35].
A positive SLR (Straight Leg Raise test) is recognized by the regulations as a
fracture in the T8 region, and lumbar pain with left leg radiculopathy “longstanding.” [R.
376]. On March 4, 2009, another treating physician, James G. Chambers, III, M.D.,
diagnosed claudication4 in her legs and chronic pain. [R. 446]. Results of an arterial
Doppler ultrasound were normal. [R. 447]. On April 2, 2009, the plaintiff was referred to
Eric R. Beck, M.D., Ph.D., for an electrodiagnostic evaluation, which showed mild
irritability “in the left anterior tibialis and peroneus longus which may be related to the
patient’s previous surgery at the left fibular head presumably a release of the left common
peroneal nerve.” [R. 407]. Dr. Beck diagnosed a mild lesion of the left peroneal nerve,
Given the marked quad atrophy and history of instability, I would like her to
return to physical therapy. I do not know if this will make a great deal of
change in her pain situation and I have encouraged her to continue with Dr.
Roberts, her pain physician. I will see her back in three weeks.
[R. 405]. On May 18, 2009, Dr. Roberts performed another nerve root block. [R. 419].
At a follow up visit with Dr. Beck on June 15, 2009, the plaintiff had completed 15
sessions of therapy with improvement of balance “but she still has left leg pain.” [R. 399].
Dr. Beck noted that the plaintiff had received maximum benefit from physical therapy.
clinically appropriate test for the presence of pain and limitation of motion of the spine.
(See Listing 1.00(B), ¶5) The SLR test is also known as Lasègue’s sign: “In sciatica,
flexion of the hip is painful when the knee is extended, but painless when the knee is
flexed. This distinguishes the disorder from disease of the hip joint.” Dorland’s
Illustrated Medical Dictionary 1525 (28th Edition).
Claudication means “limping or lameness,” and when it is neurogenic in nature
is “accompanied by pain and paresthesias in the back, buttocks, and legs that is relieved
by stooping. . . .” Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 338 (28th Ed. 1994)
[R. 400]. On July 29, 2009, Dr. Chambers diagnosed a left peroneal nerve injury. [R.
Dr. Roberts performed a left superficial perineal nerve block at the fibular
head on August 5, 2009, indicated by peripheral perineal neuropathy. [R. 538]. On
August 12, 2009, the plaintiff was examined by Jack W. Moore, M.D., who noted “some
paresthesias into the [left] foot on the plantar aspect as well as the dorsum,” in addition to
“posterior tenderness as well in the knee at the politeal fossa and some lateral retinacular
tenderness.” [R. 426]. A left knee meniscal tear and left knee internal derangement of the
lateral meniscus and knee pain was suspected, although an MRI of the left knee was
essentially normal. [R. 425-426].
Despite the plaintiff’s taking Lortab 7.5 and naproxen, on November 19,
2009, she still rated her pain at an eight out of 10. [R. 534]. Dr. Roberts performed
another left peroneal nerve block at the fibular head, which temporarily resolved her pain.
[R. 534-535]. A January 18, 2010, treatment note of Dr. Beck indicated the plaintiff was
attending another course of physical therapy with improvement, although she still
complained of “persistent pain.” [R. 470]. However, by February 15, 2010, Dr. Roberts
attempted yet another left peroneal nerve block because of left lower extremity
neuropathic pain. [R. 532]. On June 3, 2010, the plaintiff returned to Dr. Roberts with
nine out of 10 pain in her left knee and foot. [R. 514]. Dr. Roberts performed another
nerve block. Id.
In applying the Eleventh Circuit’s pain standard, the ALJ found that the
plaintiff has medically determinable impairments that could reasonably be expected to
produce her alleged symptoms, but that her statements concerning the intensity,
persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are
inconsistent with his residual functional capacity assessment. [R. 17]. This conclusion is
not supported by substantial evidence. In his decision, the ALJ stated:
The claimant also contends she is disabled due to severe leg pain. However,
the alleged severity of her leg pain is not supported by the medical
evidence. Treatment records from Tennessee Valley Pain Consultants show
the claimant ambulated with a steady gait and the record does not show she
required an assistive device to ambulate. In June 2009, Dr. Beck noted
[her] range of motion in the lumbar spine was normal and all muscles tested
were within normal range. An MRI of the lumbar spine was essentially
normal in appearance and there was no evidence of central canal stenosis or
disc herniation (See Exhibit 20F). X-rays of the knee were also within
normal limits. The claimant testified the pain in her legs was a 9 on a scale
of one to ten and that she had to elevate her legs every ten to fifteen
minutes. However, treatment records from SportsMed Orthopaedic show
the claimant exhibited no pain behavior. The undersigned acknowledges
the claimant has been diagnosed and treated for peripheral neuropathy.
However, the objective medical evidence does not substantiate the level of
pain alleged. Further, the record shows the claimant reported she was
happy with the results of physical therapy and she felt her condition had
improved. On a visit to the Tennessee Valley Pain consultants, the claimant
was alert and oriented x 3, [and] her gait was steady. The claimant
complained of neuropathic pain, but denied fevers, fatigue, [and] malaise.
There was no joint stiffness, pain, and no restrictions. (Exhibit 26F).
However, the claimant saw Dr. Harry W. Schroeder, Jr., on 11/9/2009,
where the claimant complained of chronic fatigue, incontinence, arthritis in
fingers, the left hip, left ankle, [and] right knee. However, he described the
claimant [as] well developed, well nourished, [and] in no acute distress. An
examination by Dr. Eric R. Beck on 12/21/2009 (Exhibit 19F) reveals that
the claimant was well developed, [and] in no acute distress. She had fair to
good single leg stance on the left and good on the right. She could toe and
heel walk. In addition, the range of motion in the hip, knee, forefoot and
ankle were [within a] normal range of motion. The undersigned assigns
some credibility to the claimant’s complaints and such are reflected in the
residual functional capacity.
[R. 17-18](emphasis added). As stated earlier, in this circuit medical evidence of pain
itself, or of its intensity, is not required. Based upon the medical evidence of record, the
plaintiff has unquestionably met the Eleventh Circuit’s pain standard.
One of the ALJ’s stated reasons for doubting the plaintiff’s pain testimony
is that her pain management doctors noted that she ambulated with a steady gate and did
not use an assistive device. [R. 17]. However, the records also show that the plaintiff
complained of a balance problem, had a marked atrophy in her left leg, and a history of
instability. [R. 405]. The ALJ also stated that the plaintiff “reported she was happy with
the results of physical therapy and she felt her condition had improved.” [R. 18]. While it
is true the plaintiff thought physical therapy had improved her balance, it is also clear that
she continued to complain of severe pain.
Moreover, the medical evidence shows a “longitudinal history of
complaints and attempts at relief” that support the plaintiff’s pain allegations. See SSR
96-7P 1996 WL 374186 at *7 (“In general, a longitudinal medical record demonstrating
an individual’s attempts to seek medical treatment for pain or other symptoms and to
follow that treatment once it is prescribed lends support to an individual’s allegations of
intense or persistent pain or other symptoms for the purposes of judging the credibility of
the individual’s statements.”). As Judge Allgood observed in Lamb v. Bowen: “[T]he
record is replete with evidence of a medical condition that could reasonably be expected
to produce the alleged pain. No examining physician ever questioned the existence of
appellant’s pain. They simply found themselves unable to cure the pain.” 847 F.2d 698
(11th Cir. 1988).
With this standard in mind, it is clear that the ALJ’s articulated reasons for
rejecting the plaintiff’s pain testimony are not supported by substantial evidence.
Therefore, the ALJ failed to satisfy the requirements of Hale. The conclusion of that
court is equally appropriate in the instant case. “[T]he Secretary has articulated reasons
for refusing to credit the claimant’s pain testimony, but none of these reasons is supported
by substantial evidence. It follows, therefore, that claimant’s pain testimony has been
accepted as true.” Hale, at 1012.
The plaintiff testified that she could sit for 10 minutes and stand for 10
minutes at a time. [R. 36]. She described her pain as a “shooting pain from like my
bottom of my feet up to like above my knee.” [R. 38]. She testified that the pain is always
there. Id. She testified that in an attempt to relieve her pain, she elevates her legs every
10 to 15 minutes, keeping them elevated for 20 to 30 minutes. [R. 40]. The plaintiff also
testified that because of her fatigue, she naps during the day for about four hours. [R. 46].
At the hearing, the vocational expert testified that if a person had to elevate her legs for
20 to 30 minutes after standing or sitting for 10 minutes, she could not perform any work
that exists in the regional or national economy. [R. 68]. The VE also testified that a
person who had to recline or rest for four hours during a day would also not be able to
work in the regional or national economy. [R. 70]. Taking the plaintiff’s testimony as
true, the VE’s testimony establishes disability without a doubt.
Therefore, the Commissioner failed to carry his burden at step five of
showing the plaintiff could perform other work. Accordingly, the plaintiff is disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act. An appropriate order remanding the action
with instructions that the plaintiff be awarded the benefits claimed will be entered
DONE and ORDERED 11 July 2012.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
J. FOY GUIN, JR.
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