Fuqua v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by US Magistrate Judge T Michael Putnam on 3/19/2014. (MSN)
2014 Mar-20 AM 08:39
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ANTHONY DOUGLAS FUQUA,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
The plaintiff, Anthony Douglas Fuqua, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (ACommissioner@) denying his
application for Disability Insurance Benefits (ADIB@). Mr. Fuqua timely pursued
and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner
is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. '' 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have
consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
' 636(c) (doc. 12).
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Mr. Fuqua was fifty-six years old at the time of the Administrative Law
Judge=s (“ALJ=s”) decision (Tr. at 71), and is considered a “person of advanced
age” according to 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1563(e). He has a high school education, with
three years of college training. (Tr. at 71). His past work experiences include
employment as a machine operator, a hand packager of CDs, and a degreaser. (Tr.
at 85). Mr. Fuqua claims that he became disabled on October 31, 2008, due to
symptoms and limitations related to hypertension, obesity, and arthritic back
problems. (Tr. at 24-25).
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; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir.
2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is Adoing
substantial gainful activity.@ 20 C.F.R. '' 404.150(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I). If he
or she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is
not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant’s physical
416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational
requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision
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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, which is a determination of whether the claimant=s
impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt.
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If
the claimant’s impairments fall within this category, he or she will be found
disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the
claimant=s residual functional capacity will be made and the analysis proceeds to
the fourth step.
20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
capacity (“RFC”) is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant=s
remaining ability to do work despite his or her impairments.
20 C.F.R. '
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant=s
impairments prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
'' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his or her past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation ends. Id. If the
claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.
Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant=s RFC, as well as the
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claimant=s age, education, and past work experience in order to determine if he or
she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(v) 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the
claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden is on the
Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform;
and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his or her inability to
perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224,
1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Fuqua
meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December
31, 2013. (Tr. at 24). However, the ALJ also determined that Mr. Fuqua had not
been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 31,
2008, to the date of the ALJ=s decision. (Tr. at 31). In reaching that finding, he
first determined under step one of the analysis that Mr. Fuqua has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2008, the alleged onset date of his
disability. (Id.) At the second step of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that
Mr. Fuqua=s hypertension is considered a “severe” impairment based on the
requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) He further considered as “nonsevere impairments” Mr. Fuqua’s medically determinable obesity, costochondritis,
and back pain/arthritis. (Tr. at 25). The ALJ noted that Mr. Fuqua alleged tingling
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in his hands and feet; a “light” stroke; leg and arm numbness and weakness; and
anxiety and nervousness.
However, the ALJ determined that these
impairments are not medically determinable, and the alleged symptoms are not
reasonably related to a medically determinable impairment. (Id.)
At the third step of the analysis, the ALJ found that Mr. Fuqua’s severe and
non-severe impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) As such, the ALJ
was required to determine Mr. Fuqua=s RFC. In doing so, he did not find Mr.
Fuqua’s allegations to be totally credible, and determined that Mr. Fuqua has the
following residual functional capacity: medium exertional work as defined in 20
C.F.R. 404.1567(c) with limitations.
The ALJ determined that Mr. Fuqua is
capable of lifting and/or carrying 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds
frequently; is capable of sitting, standing, and walking for 6 hours each out of an 8hour workday; is limited to walking at a normal pace; can never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; and must avoid all exposure to workplace hazards. (Tr. at 2526).
According to the ALJ, at step four of the analysis, Mr. Fuqua is able to
perform his past relevant work as a hand packager and a machine operator because
the work does not require the performance of any of the work-related activities
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precluded in Mr. Fuqua=s RFC. (Tr. at 31). A claimant who is able to perform his
or her past relevant work will not be found disabled and, therefore, the ALJ is not
required to proceed to the fifth step of the analysis.
Accordingly, the ALJ
concluded his findings by stating that Mr. Fuqua “has not been under a disability,
as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 31, 2008, through the date of
this decision.” (Id.)
Standard of Review
This 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
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284
F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the
Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions.
See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not
decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the
Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative
decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing
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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 this court finds that
the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, the court must
affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400.
No decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [for
review of claims] it is imperative that the 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).
Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal
standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th
The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is
disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant’s residual functional capacity, and the
application of vocational factors “are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead,
opinions on issues reserved to the commissioner because they are administrative
findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or
decision of disability.”
20 C.F.R. '' 404.1527(e), 416.927(d).
plaintiff meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a
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question reserved for the ALJ, and the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh
the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Dyer v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to
disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no
power to reverse that finding as long as there is substantial evidence in the record
Mr. Fuqua alleges that the ALJ=s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence and should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. First, he believes
that the ALJ failed to consider his “non-severe” impairments beyond the second
step of the sequential evaluation process. (Doc. 10 at 5). In doing so, Mr. Fuqua
argues that the ALJ failed to consider his arthritis of the back and obesity at all.
(Id. at 6).
Second, Mr. Fuqua contends that the ALJ failed to consider his
impairments’ effect on his ability to work in combination with one another and,
instead, ceased his evaluation at whether Mr. Fuqua’s combined impairments met a
medical listing. (Id.)
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Did the ALJ Complete All Necessary Steps of the Sequential
Mr. Fuqua contends that the ALJ did not properly consider all of his
medically determinable impairments beyond the second step of the sequential
evaluation process when determining his RFC. (Doc. 10 at 5). He also states that
“[i]n his decision, the ALJ specifically concluded that Plaintiff did not have back
pain/arthritis and that this was, therefore, a non-severe impairment.” (Id.) Mr.
Fuqua is correct in his assertion that the ALJ determined that his back
pain/arthritis, costochondritis, and obesity were non-severe impairments.
However, the ALJ did not determine that Mr. Fuqua “did not have” these
impairments. The ALJ’s decision acknowledges that Mr. Fuqua “has . . . been
diagnosed with, treated for or given a history of obesity, costochondritis, and back
(Tr. at 25).
However, the ALJ also determined that “these
[impairments] have not resulted in any lasting limitation of his ability for basic
work-related activities,” and, accordingly, found that the impairments are not
In making his determination that Mr. Fuqua’s obesity, costochondritis, and
back pain/arthritis are not severe impairments, the ALJ cited Mr. Fuqua’s testimony
that his excess weight did not cause any problems or limitations, the fact that Mr.
Fuqua has sought treatment for his back pain and arthritis only rarely, and that
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Mr. Fuqua has repeatedly had normal musculoskeletal and neurological
examinations during the time period at issue. (Tr. at 25). At step three, the ALJ
determined that Mr. Fuqua’s “impairments do not meet or equal the severity of any
impairment in the Listing of Impairments.” (Id.) The ALJ determined Mr. Fuqua’s
RFC before proceeding to step four of the sequential evaluation process (id.), and
he clearly did so by taking into account not only Mr. Fuqua’s hypertension, but
also his back pain/arthritis and his obesity. (Tr. at 27). It simply is not true that the
ALJ failed to consider separately and in combination all of the Mr. Fuqua’s
impairments, even those found to be “non-severe.” At pages six and seven of the
ALJ’s opinion (Tr. at 27-28), he explicitly explained why he concluded that Mr.
Fuqua’s back pain/arthritis and obesity did not have any effect on his RFC or
ability to work. These findings were based on substantial evidence, consisting both
of medical records and Mr. Fuqua’s testimony. The ALJ ultimately determined that
Mr. Fuqua’s RFC allows him to perform his past relevant work. (Tr. at 31).
Therefore, Mr. Fuqua=s argument that the ALJ failed to consider his nonsevere impairments past step two of the sequential evaluation process is simply
invalid. In the ALJ=s determination of Mr. Fuqua=s RFC, he took into consideration
Mr. Fuqua=s allegations “that his ability to work is impaired by high blood pressure
and arthritis in his hands, knees, and back,” and his testimony that “he has constant
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pain in his lower back” that “makes it difficult to walk and affects his balance” and
his ability to bend, use his hands, and lift. (Tr. at 26). However, the ALJ then
determined that Mr. Fuqua’s testimony regarding the persistence and intensity of
his symptoms was “not credible” to the extent that it is inconsistent with the
determined RFC and the medical evidence. (Tr. at 27).
The ALJ provides a detailed discussion of the medical and non-medical
evidence he used to determine RFC and the weight to which he gave each piece of
evidence. (Tr. at 28-31). His assessment and reasoning meet the guidelines set
forth in SSR 96-8p, which requires that the RFC assessment be based on all
relevant, available evidence, including medical history, medical signs and
laboratory findings, the effects of treatment, reports of daily activities, lay
evidence, recorded observations, medical source statements, effects of symptoms,
evidence from attempts to work, need for a structured living environment, and
work evaluations. Although the ALJ does not specifically mention Mr. Fuqua=s
alleged back pain and arthritis in the section of his opinion titled “Basis for the
Residual Functional Capacity,” this omission is explained by the ALJ’s statement
that “the medical evidence does not support the claimant’s assertions regarding the
limiting nature of his symptoms. In particular, there is very little medical evidence
regarding the claimant’s back pain/arthritis, and there are no treatment notes
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indicating that he has significant problems with his hands or knees, as he
contends.” (Tr. at 27). The ALJ explicitly rejected all hypothetical limitations
proposed by Mr. Fuqua and his representative as not supported by the longitudinal
record. (Tr. at 30). Despite Mr. Fuqua=s argument, the ALJ did consider his nonsevere impairments beyond step two of the sequential evaluation process; the ALJ
simply determined that the non-severe impairments do not effect Mr. Fuqua=s
ability to work. A review of the ALJ=s RFC determination indicates to the court
that the ALJ did consider Mr. Fuqua=s medical condition as a whole in making his
RFC determination. Castel v. Commissioner of Social Security, 355 Fed. Appx.
260, 263 (11th Cir. 2009).
Did the ALJ Properly Consider Mr. Fuqua=s Impairments in
Mr. Fuqua argues that “each of his impairments should have been considered
in combination with each other” in the ALJ’s determination of his RFC. (Doc. 10,
p. 7). He further contends that the ALJ failed to consider his impairments in
combination beyond the question of whether those impairments meet a medical
Finally, Mr. Fuqua claims that the ALJ failed to consider his
diagnosed arthritis of the back and obesity at all. (Id.) The ALJ stated that, in
making his RFC determination, he “considered all symptoms and the extent to
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which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 CFR
404.1529 and SSRs 96-4p and 96-7p.” (Tr. at 25). The ALJ=s evaluation included
acknowledgment that Mr. Fuqua claims that “his ability to work is impaired by . . .
arthritis in his hands, knees, and back,” and that “he has constant pain in his lower
back . . . [which] makes it difficult to walk and affects his balance.” (Tr. at 26).
The ALJ found that these allegations were not credible, however, due to the lack of
medical evidence regarding back pain or arthritis, including the fact that “the
medical records do not indicate that the claimant has required any regular
medication for pain or other musculoskeletal complaints during the time at issue.”
(Tr. at 27).
In his determination of Mr. Fuqua=s severe and non-severe impairments, the
ALJ cites Mr. Fuqua=s own testimony that “his excess weight does not cause him
any problems or limitations,” in classifying Mr. Fuqua=s obesity as a non-severe
impairment. (Tr. at 23). He notes Mr. Fuqua’s past treatment of costochondritis 2
but, due to the fact that no lasting limitations resulted from that diagnosis and
treatment, the ALJ found that the costochondritis also is a non-severe impairment.
Costochondritis is a temporary “inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the
breastbone (sternum)…,” the pain from which “may mimic that of a heart attack or other heart
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(Tr. at 23). The ALJ also cited Mr. Fuqua=s continued collection of unemployment
benefits, his self-reported daily activities, and his function report as evidence that
Mr. Fuqua’s allegations of disability are not totally credible. (Tr. at 27). The ALJ
went on to explain that he determined Mr. Fuqua=s RFC based on his “statements
regarding the effects of his hypertension, including chest pain and shortness of
breath,” and, due to these symptoms, “limited him to medium work with . . .
additional limitations . . . [including] walking at a normal pace to prevent blood
pressure increases due to exertion . . . [and] postural and environmental restrictions
to account for the claimant=s dizziness and related symptoms.” (Tr. at 28).
Mr. Fuqua=s brief correctly alleges that the ALJ does not mention his obesity
or costochondritis specifically when determining his RFC. Also, the ALJ did not
specifically mention a hypothetical claimant with back pain, obesity, and
costochondritis when posing hypotheticals to the Vocational Expert during Mr.
Fuqua=s hearing. (Tr. at 85-87). However, if the failure to specifically mention
these non-severe impairments was error on the part of the ALJ, this court finds that
such error was harmless, and the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial
In this jurisdiction, “there is no rigid requirement that the ALJ
specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision, so long as the ALJ=s
decision . . . is not a broad rejection which is not enough to enable [the district
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court or this Court] to conclude that [the ALJ] considered her medical condition as
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal
citations omitted). A review of the ALJ=s RFC determination persuades the court
that the ALJ did consider Mr. Fuqua=s medical condition as a whole. The ALJ=s
consideration of the evidence was not an arbitrary and broad dismissal. After
considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Mr. Fuqua has the residual
functioning capacity to perform medium work with several limitations. Because
Mr. Fuqua=s past relevant work does not require him to perform work-activity
limited by his RFC, the ALJ determined that Mr. Fuqua is capable of performing
his past relevant work and, accordingly, is not disabled.
(Tr. at 22.)
conclusion was grounded in the testimony of the vocational expert, who opined
that a claimant with Mr. Fuqua’s age, weight, and RFC could perform the work of
a hand packager, as Mr. Fuqua had done in the past.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Mr. Fuqua=s
arguments, the Court finds the Commissioner=s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will be entered.
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DONE this 19th day of March, 2014.
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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