Bynum v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER; the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed and costs are taxed against claimant. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 08/27/12. (SPT )
2012 Aug-27 AM 10:34
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
REGINA M. BYNUM,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner, Social Security
Case No. CV-11-S-3911-NE
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Claimant, Regina M. Bynum, commenced this action on November 14, 2011,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of
the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”),
and thereby denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance
The court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is
a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v.
Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253
(11th Cir. 1983).
Claimant contends that the Commissioner’s decision is neither supported by
substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically,
claimant asserts that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence from both
treating and non-treating physicians, that he failed to properly develop the record, and
and that he should have found claimant to be disabled pursuant to the MedicalVocational Guidelines (“grids”). Upon review of the record, the court concludes that
these contentions lack merit, and that the Commissioner’s ruling is due to be
Claimant first argues hat the ALJ erred in not giving full weight to the opinion
of Dr. Ron Collins, claimant’s treating pain management physician. 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, 1240-41 (11th
Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). Good cause exists when “(1) [the] treating
physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported
a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or
inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.” Id. Additionally, the ALJ is not
required to accept a conclusory statement from a medical source, even a treating
source, that a claimant is unable to work, because the decision whether a claimant is
disabled is not a medical opinion, but is a decision “reserved to the Commissioner.”
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e).
Social Security regulations also provide that, in considering what weight to
give any medical opinion (regardless of whether it is from a treating or non-treating
physician), the Commissioner should evaluate: the extent of the examining or
treating relationship between the doctor and patient; whether the doctor’s opinion can
be supported by medical signs and laboratory findings; whether the opinion is
consistent with the record as a whole; the doctor’s specialization; and other factors.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). See also Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075
(11th Cir. 1986) (“The weight afforded a physician’s conclusory statements depends
upon the extent to which they are supported by clinical or laboratory findings and are
consistent with other evidence as to claimant’s impairments.”).
Dr. Collins completed a Physical Capacities Evaluation form on February 12,
2009. He indicated that claimant could lift no more than ten pounds on an occasional
basis. She could sit for a total of three hours, and stand and walk (combined) for a
total of two hours during an eight-hour workday. Dr. Collins stated that claimant
required a cane to ambulate even minimally during a normal workday due to antalgic
gait and consequent risk of falling. Claimant could frequently perform gross and fine
manipulation, and she could occasionally push, pull, and reach, but she could never
climb, bend, or stoop. Claimant could work around dust, allergens, and fumes, but
she could not work around hazardous machinery. She also could operate motor
vehicles. On that subject, Dr. Collins stated, “from our standpoint pt can drive. Defer
further restriction to mental health provider re agoraphobia.”1
On a Clinical
Assessment of Pain form, Dr. Collins indicated that claimant’s pain was present to
such an extent as to be distracting to adequate performance of daily activities or work,
and that physical activity would greatly increase pain to such a degree as to cause
distraction from or total abandonment of tasks. In response to a question about how
the side effects of claimant’s prescribed medications would affect her ability to work,
Dr. Collins indicated his agreement with both of the following responses: “Some side
effects may be present, but not to such a degree as to create serious problems in most
instances,” and “Drug side effects can be expected to be severe and to limit
effectiveness due to distraction, inattention, drowsiness, etc.” Finally, Dr Collins
indicated that claimant had an underlying medical condition consistent with the pain
she was experiencing.2
The ALJ gave “some, but not great weight” to Dr. Collins’ assessment. The
ALJ reasoned that Dr. Collins’ opinions were inconsistent with the objective medical
evidence and other evidence of record.3 More specifically, the ALJ stated that Dr.
Collins’ assessment of distracting pain and inability to stoop were inconsistent with
claimant’s ability to drive, as driving requires both concentration and the ability to
get into and out of a car. The ALJ also noted that Dr. Collins’ statements about the
side effects of claimant’s medications were internally inconsistent, as Dr. Collins
noted both that claimant’s side effects would not create serious problems and that the
side effects would be severe and limit claimant’s effectiveness at work. The ALJ also
noted that Dr. Collins’ statement that claimant required a cane to ambulate was
unsupported by any medical records, inconsistent with claimant’s non-use of a cane
at the administrative hearing, and inconsistent with the consultative report of Dr.
Gulati, who noted that claimant had a normal gait and could heel and toe walk with
no difficulty. Finally, the ALJ noted that the limitations imposed by Dr. Collins were
inconsistent with other objective medical evidence, including laboratory studies, a
whole body scan showing “nothing significant,” and a lumbar x-ray showing no focal
disc herniation.4 The court finds that the ALJ adequately articulated his reasons for
choosing not to fully rely upon Dr. Collins’ opinion, and that the ALJ’s decision was
supported by substantial evidence.
Claimant also asserts that the ALJ erred in giving “greater” and “significant”
weight to the opinions of the stage agency medical and psychological examiners.
There is no rule, as claimant seems to suggest, that an ALJ cannot choose to favor the
opinions of state agency examiners over those of treating or examining physicians.
To the contrary, the opinions of state agency physicians are entitled to substantial
consideration. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(f)(2)(i) & 416.927(f)(2)(i) (stating that,
while the ALJ is not bound by the findings of a State Agency physician, the ALJ
should consider such a physician to be both “highly qualified” and an “expert” in
Social Security disability evaluation). See also Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078,
1084 (5th Cir. 1981) (“The Secretary was justified in accepting the opinion of Dr.
Gordon, a qualified reviewing physician, that was supported by the evidence, and in
rejecting the conclusory statement of Dr. Harris, a treating physician, that was
contrary to the evidence.”). Here, the ALJ relied upon the opinions of the state
agency medical physician because it was “consistent with the objective medical
evidence and other evidence of record.”5 He gave significant weight to the opinion
of the state agency psychiatric consultant because it was “consistent with the
claimant’s mental health treatment history, the findings and opinion of [the
consultative psychological examiner], and with the claimant’s daily activities.”6
Those are all valid reasons for affording more weight to the state agency opinions, see
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d), and the ALJ’s conclusions in this regard are supported by
substantial evidence of record.
Next, claimant argues that the ALJ failed to properly develop the
administrative record because he did not obtain an additional medical source opinion
despite rejecting certain portions of the consultative report of Dr. Prem Gulati, who
examined claimant on April 17, 2008. Dr. Gulati noted that claimant had experienced
constant, sharp, throbbing back pain with radiation into the legs for ten years. On
clinical examination, Dr. Gulati found no spasms or deformity, and only moderate
tenderness at the L4, L5-S1 levels. The range of motion in claimant’s lumbar spine
was normal, and she had no difficulty getting on and off the examination table.
Claimant walked with a normal gait without an assistive device, and she experienced
no ataxia. She could not squat and rise up, but she could heel and toe walk without
any difficulty. All other manipulative functions and ranges of motion were within
normal limits. Dr. Gulati assessed degenerative disc disease with lumbar radicular
pain, decreased hearing, and history of depression. He further stated, “This is a 49year-old white female who gets stiff while sitting long hours. I guess if she can do
alternate sitting, standing and walking around with anti-inflammatory medications,
she should be able to get a job.”7
The ALJ afforded Dr. Gulati’s assessment some, but not great weight, because
Dr. Gulati did not provide any specific limitations other than his tentative statement
about claimant being able to get a job if she could alternate sitting, standing and
walking. Furthermore, the ALJ discredited Dr. Gulati’s assessment of the need to
alternate sitting, standing and walking because it was unsupported by the objective
medical evidence or by Dr. Gulati’s own examination of claimant. Claimant argues
that if the ALJ was dissatisfied with any aspect of Dr. Gulati’s opinion, he should
have obtained an additional opinion. The court is not persuaded by claimant’s
argument. It is true that the ALJ
has an obligation to develop a full and fair record, even if the claimant
is represented by counsel. Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735
(11th Cir. 1981). The ALJ is not required to seek additional
independent expert medical testimony before making a disability
determination if the record is sufficient and additional expert testimony
is not necessary for an informed decision. Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d
1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 1999) (holding the record, which included the
opinion of several physicians, was sufficient for the ALJ to arrive at a
decision); Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1209-10 (11th Cir. 1988)
(holding the ALJ must order a consultative exam when it is necessary
for an informed decision).
Nation v. Barnhart, 153 Fed. Appx. 597, 598 (11th Cir. 2005) (emphasis supplied).
Furthermore, claimant bears the ultimate burden of producing evidence to support her
disability claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003)
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.912(a), (c)). The court concludes that the record in this case
was sufficient, even absent any statements from Dr. Gulati about claimant’s
functional limitations, for the ALJ to arrive at an informed decision.
The court is equally unpersuaded by claimant’s suggestion that the ALJ’s RFC
assessment was not sufficiently specific. The ALJ found that, despite all her
limitations, claimant retained the residual functional capacity to perform
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except with some
additional limitations. The claimant has moderate pain. The claimant
is able to stand continuously for 2 hours at a time. The claimant is able
to walk continuously for 2 blocks at a time. The claimant is able to sit
continuously for 1 hour at a time. The claimant is restricted from
repetitive bending, but is able to occasionally bend. The claimant is
restricted from working with excessive background noise in the
workplace. The claimant is restricted from a job requiring repetitive
spoken or oral instructions. The claimant has the mental limitations as
set forth in Exhibit 13F.8
Claimant takes issue with the ALJ’s failure to specify the total number of hours
claimant could sit, stand, and/or walk during a workday, and with his use of the words
“excessive” and “repetitive.” The court, however, finds the ALJ’s residual functional
capacity assessment to be thorough and inclusive. The ALJ likely did not state
limitations on the total number of hours claimant could sit, stand, or walk during a
workday because he found that the evidence did not support any such limitations.
Instead, it is reasonable to conclude that the ALJ found that claimant could perform
unlimited sitting, standing, walking, as long as the intervals for each activity did not
exceed what is listed above. Further, the court finds that the terms “excessive” and
“repetitive” were sufficient to describe the frequency with which claimant could
perform certain postural movements or be exposed to certain environmental
Claimant’s final argument is that the ALJ should have found her to be capable
of only sedentary work, not light work. If the ALJ had come to that conclusion, the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines, or “grids,” would have mandated a finding of
disability. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Rule 201.14 (mandating a finding
of disability for an individual closely approaching advanced age, with a high school
education that does not provide for direct entry into skilled work, with no transferable
skills, and a limitation to sedentary work). However, claimant does not provide any
substance to support her argument that she is capable of only sedentary work. She
only states that “[a]n RFC for the full range of sedentary work would better comport
with the evidence, the severe impairment findings and the postural limitations as
determined by the ALJ especially with regard to the limitations on sitting, standing,
walking and bending.”9 The court is not persuaded by this conclusory statement.
Social Security regulations define sedentary work as follows:
Sedentary work involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time
and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and
small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves
sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in
carrying out job duties. Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing are
required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met.
20 C.F.R. §404.1567(a). Light work is defined as follows:
Doc. no. 8 (claimant’s brief), at 9.
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.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). Claimant’s limitations are consistent with the definition of
light work, which contemplates that the claimant can do a “good deal” of walking or
standing. Moreover, the physical aspects of the ALJ’s residual functional capacity
finding are consistent with the assessment of Dr. Robert Heilpern, the state agency
physician, who found that claimant could occasionally lift up to 20 pounds and
frequently lift up to 10 pounds, and to whom the ALJ afforded significant weight.10
In summary, the court concludes the ALJ’s decision was based upon substantial
evidence and in accordance with applicable legal standards. Accordingly, the
decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Costs are taxed against claimant. The
Clerk is directed to close this file.
DONE this 27th day of August 2012.
United States District Judge
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