Basden v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by US Magistrate Judge T Michael Putnam on 3/27/2014. (MSN)
2014 Mar-27 PM 03:52
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, 1
Case Number: 5:12-cv-03448-JHE
MEMORANDUM OPINION 2
Plaintiff Linda Basden (“Basden”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g)
of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”). Basden timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies. The case is
therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The undersigned has carefully
considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner’s decision is
In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 73, the parties in this case have voluntarily consented to have a United States
Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings, including trial and the entry of final
judgment. (Doc. 13).
Carolyn W. Colvin was named the Acting Commissioner on February 14, 2013. See
http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pressoffice/factsheets/colvin.htm (“On February 14, 2013,
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security.”). Under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), “[a]ny action instituted in accordance with this subsection shall survive
notwithstanding any change in the person occupying the office of Commissioner of Social
Security or any vacancy in such office.” Accordingly, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Rule
25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court has substituted Carolyn W. Colvin for
Michael Astrue in the case caption above.
I. Factual and Procedural History
Basden was a fifty-two year old female at the time of her hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on August 16, 2010. (Tr. 61). Basden has a seventh grade
education. (Tr. 73). 3 Basden previously worked as a certified nursing assistant and a packager on
an assembly line. (Tr. 75-76).
Basden filed her application for DIB on March 17, 2009, alleging an initial onset date of
October 23, 2008. (Tr. 91, 118). The Commissioner denied Basden’s application for DIB, (Tr.
91-92), and Basden requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 100). After a hearing, the ALJ
denied Basden’s claim on October 22, 2010. (Tr. 35). Basden sought review by the Appeals
Council, but it declined her request on July 26, 2012. (Tr. 1-3). On that date, the ALJ’s decision
became the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 25, 2012, Basden initiated this
action. (See doc. 1).
II. Standard of Review 4
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, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1422 (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,
Basden quit school in the “middle of the eighth grade.” (Tr. 73). Basden testified she
quit because she was “real far behind in school, and . . . in special ed some.” (Tr. 74).
In general, the legal standards applied are the same whether a claimant seeks 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 for statutes or
regulations found in quoted court decisions.
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 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).
III. 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. 54 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 entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of 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” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499, revised as of April 1, 2007.
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 sequence:
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 national
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to the formerly applicable C.F.R.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (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 [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 such work exists in the national economy in significant
IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge
After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation
process, the ALJ made the following findings:
At Step One, the ALJ found Basden met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act through March 31, 2013, and that Basden had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since October 23, 2008, the alleged onset date of her disability. (Tr. 24). At Step Two,
the ALJ found Basden has the severe impairment rheumatoid arthritis. (Id.). At Step Three, the
ALJ found Basden does not have 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, Appendix 1.
Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Basden’s residual functioning
capacity (“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined Basden has the RFC to perform light work as defined in
20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), with the restriction that Basden cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds,
but could occasionally handle and finger bilaterally. (Tr. 25).
At Step Four, the ALJ determined Basden is unable to perform any past relevant work.
(Tr. 33). At Step Five, the ALJ determined, based on Basden’s age, education, work experience, 6
and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy Basden could perform. (Tr. 34). Therefore, the ALJ denied Basden’s claim. (Tr. 35).
Although the court may reverse a finding of the Commissioner only if it is not supported
by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his 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
Basden was born on August 4, 1959, and was forty-nine years old, which is defined as a
younger individual age eighteen to forty-nine, on the alleged disability onset date. Basden
subsequently changed age category to closely approaching advanced age. (Tr. 33). Basden has a
limited education and is able to communicate in English. (Id.). The ALJ found transferability of
job skills is not material to the determination of disability because, using the Medical-Vocational
Rules as a framework, supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled,” whether or not the
claimant has transferable job skills. (Id.); see also SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)).
The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for
that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Basden contends the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence and should
be reversed and remanded for the following reasons:
1) The record is incomplete because there is no medical source opinion
containing a function by function analysis ; (Id. at 5)
2) Basden’s RFC is inconsistent with the Regulations’ definition of light
work; (Id. at 7) and
3) The ALJ improperly relied on unreliable testimony from a vocational
expert; (Id. at 9).
Basden also contends the decision should be reversed and remanded because
(4) the ALJ should have applied Medical Vocational rule 201.14. (Id. at 10).
The ALJ’s RFC Assessment that Basden can Perform a Reduced Range of
Light Work is Supported by Substantial Evidence
As explained above, a claimant’s RFC is the most she can do despite her limitations. 20
C.F.R.§ 404.1545(a); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184. This finding, as all of the ALJ’s findings,
must be supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ found Basden could perform a reduced
range of light work.
In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered Basden’s physical
examinations, diagnostic test results, effectiveness of pain medication, and other evidence
contained in treatment notes from her physician. (Tr. 27-33). For the reasons explained below,
there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC assessment.
Medical Evidence Supports the ALJ’s RFC Assessment
Basden argues the ALJ’s RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence
because no medical source opinions were made available to the ALJ prior to making the RFC
assessment. As Basden concedes, however, there is no express requirement that an ALJ’s RFC
finding be based on a medical source opinion or a medical source statement. (Doc. 9 at 5, 10).
Although the Regulations allow an ALJ to request and consider a medical source opinion, 20
C.F.R. § 404.1529(b), there is no express requirement he do so. The task of determining a
claimant’s RFC and ability to work is within the providence of the ALJ, not doctors. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(d), SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183; see also Robinson v. Astrue, 365 Fed. App’x 993,
999 (11th Cir. 2010). An ALJ does not need a medical source opinion to inform his RFC finding
and may properly base his RFC finding on his evaluation of the medical and non-medical
evidence of record.
Here, the ALJ considered records from Dr. Putnam, a general practitioner who evaluated
Basden as to several medical conditions, including routine illnesses, chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (“COPD”), sinus pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chest tightness. (Tr. 27).
Importantly, Dr. Putnam treated Basden for shoulder pain, and eventually diagnosed her with
rheumatoid arthritis. (Id.).
After this diagnosis, Dr. Putnam referred Basden to Dr. Vijay
Jampala, a rheumatologist. (Id.). The ALJ also considered records from Dr. Jampala. These
records included Dr. Jampala’s diagnosis of Basden with early rheumatoid arthritis, as well as
several lab tests and exams conducted by Dr. Jampala on no fewer than six separate occasions
between October 2008 and September 10, 2009. (Tr. 28-30). Additionally, the ALJ considered
records from Dr. Jampala, Dr. Kubrik, Dr. Alexander, and Dr. Putnam after the alleged onset
date of October 23, 2008. (Tr. 30-33).
The ALJ’s RFC finding is supported by substantial medical evidence, and he was under
no obligation to use a medical source opinion. See Green v. Social Security Administration, 223
Fed. App’x 915 (11th Cir. 2007); Langely v. Astrue, 777 F. Supp. 2d 1250, 1261 (N.D. Ala.
2011). Basden cannot rely on the absence of a medical source opinion to discount medical
records and opinions that support the ALJ’s determination that she is not disabled. Basden’s
argument the ALJ’s determination is not supported by substantial evidence because he did not
consider a medical source opinion is without merit.
The ALJ Met the Function-by-Function Analysis Requirements
Basden also summarily contends the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence because the ALJ did not perform a function-by-function analysis in his opinion prior to
determining Basden’s RFC. This argument is unpersuasive. The ALJ’s thorough discussion of
the medical evidence and citations to the regulatory definition of light work is sufficient to meet
the function-by-function assessment requirements. See e.g, Castel v. Comm’r of Social Sec., 355
Fed. App’x 260, 263 (11th Cir. 2009) (holding the ALJ performed a proper function-by-function
analysis where the ALJ discussed the medical evidence supporting the RFC and the RFC finding
was based on substantial evidence).
An RFC is a function-by-function assessment of an individual’s ability to do work-related
activities based upon all of the relevant evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). An ALJ performs
this assessment when, as part of his RFC determination, he assesses the claimant’s functional
limitations and restrictions and then expresses these functional limitations in terms of exertional
levels. Castel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 355 Fed. App’x 260, 263 (11th Cir. 2009); Freeman v.
Barnhart, 220 Fed. App’x 957, 959-60 (11th Cir. 2007).
In making his determination the ALJ must consider all the relevant evidence, including:
medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, the effects of treatment,
including limitations or restrictions imposed by the mechanics of treatment (e.g.,
frequency of treatment, duration, disruption to routine, side effects of medication),
reports of daily activities, lay evidence, recorded observations, medical source
statements, effects of symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributed to a
medically determinable impairment, evidence from attempts to work, need for a
structured living environment, and work evaluations, if available.
SSR 96-8p at *4-*5. An ALJ is not required to “specifically refer to every piece of evidence in
his decision,” so long as the decision is sufficient to show that the ALJ considered the claimant’s
medical condition as a whole. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); see also
Castel, 355 Fed. App’x at 263.
The record reveals that the ALJ assessed Ms. Basden’s functional limitations and
considered all the relevant evidence. Before expressing her RFC finding as an exertional level,
the ALJ noted and discussed Ms. Basden’s testimony at the review hearing, where she discussed
her daily activities, difficulties standing, walking, and using her hands, (tr. 25-27); summarized
the records from Ms. Basden’s doctors to include her ability to complete handwritten forms, (tr.
27-30); noted findings regarding Basden’s limited right shoulder motion, (tr. 27); and noted Dr.
Jampala’s opinion that she was able to do some “light work,” 7 (tr. 28). The ALJ properly
performed an RFC analysis, and as noted above, the analysis is supported by substantial
The VE’s Testimony Was Proper
Basden contends the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the
ALJ used testimony of a vocational expert that was unreliable in making his determination
Basden could perform other jobs in the national economy. (Doc. 9 at 9-10). This argument also
Plaintiff urges that the court should not consider this statement by Dr. Jampala since it
is a “term of art” defined by the Social Security Administration (Doc. 9 at 7). The court does not
consider this statement, in and of itself, to support the ALJ’s determination that Basden is
capable of light work. However, the statement helps to show that the ALJ considered all of the
relevant medical evidence in this case in making his RFC determination in accordance with SSR
An ALJ may use a vocational expert to provide evidence to meet the Commissioner’s
burden of showing there are jobs the claimant can perform that are available in significant
numbers in the national economy. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004).
To successfully do so the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question to the vocational expert which
identifies all of the claimant’s impairments. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir.
2002). The hypothetical need not include every symptom of the claimant. Id.
The ALJ used a hypothetical when questioning the VE. (Tr. 86-87).
was entitled to rely on the VE’s testimony in determining that there are jobs in the economy
Basden could perform despite her limited residual functioning capacity. Basden has not refuted
the VE’s testimony, but instead argues the jobs identified by the VE and adopted by the ALJ
would not be a good “fit.” (Doc. 9 at 9). This is not sufficient. Basden has cited to no portions
of the record, her medical history, or any other information to show the VE’s testimony was
incorrect. The VE’s testimony was proper and constitutes substantial evidence in support of the
The ALJ Properly Applied the Medical Vocational Rules
Lastly, Basden contends the ALJ erred when he did not classify her work abilities as
consistent with sedentary work, and if the ALJ had done so, the Medical Vocational Rule 201.14
would apply and mandate a finding of disabled. (Doc. 9 at 8). The argument the ALJ erred
when he did not classify her work abilities as consistent with sedentary work, is simply a
restatement of Basden’s previous RFC arguments.
To the extent Basden argues the ALJ
misapplied the Medical Vocational Rules, he did not.
Medical Vocational Rule 201.14 dictates that a claimant who meets the following criteria
is disabled: (1) can only perform sedentary work; (2) a high school graduate or more; (3) closely
approaching advanced age; and (4) does not have transferable skills. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P., App. 2, Rule 201.14.
Because Basden is not a high school graduate, Medical
Vocational Rule 201.14 does not apply. (See Tr. 73-74). Instead, Medical Vocational Rule
201.10 would apply, which is substantively the same.
These rules, however, apply only when the claimant can perform only sedentary work,
that is, if the claimant cannot perform light work. Here, the ALJ found Basden capable of
performing light work with some limitations. 8 (Tr. 33-34). If the ALJ found Basden could do
the full range of light work without limitations then the Medical Vocational Rules would have
mandated a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 2, Rule 201.14.
Accordingly, because Basden did not come within either of these rules, the Medical Vocational
Rules did not mandate the ALJ’s decision. Instead, the ALJ was permitted to use them as a
framework, as he did, and supplement them by testimony from a VE in making his determination
there were jobs in the national economy Basden could perform. (Tr. 34); see Wolfe v. Chater, 86
F.3d 1072, 1077-78 (11th Cir. 1996). Basden’s argument the ALJ’s opinion was not supported
by substantial evidence based on an incorrect application of the Medical Vocational Guidelines
fails for the reasons already discussed at length above.
To the extent Basden argues the ALJ’s determination of her RFC was incorrect, the
Medical Vocational Guidelines are not relevant; they are only applied after the claimant has been
categorized as being able to perform none, sedentary, light, or moderate work. As noted above
the ALJ’s determination that Basden could perform light work with some restrictions was
supported by substantial evidence.
Because the Commissioner’s decision is based on substantial evidence, it is AFFIRMED
and this action will be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. A separate order will be entered.
DONE this 27th day of March, 2014.
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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