Spriggs v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 8/22/2014. (PSM)
2014 Aug-22 PM 03:31
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JUANITA FAY SPRIGGS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Juanita Fay Spriggs (“Spriggs”) brings this action pursuant to Section
205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of
the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“SSA”). This court finds that the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision which has become the decision of the Commissioner - is supported by substantial
evidence. Therefore, for the reasons elaborated herein, the court will affirm the
decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Spriggs, whose past relevant experience includes work as a production
assembler, poultry worker, and egg packer, filed an application for Title II disability
insurance benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on March 5, 2010,
alleging an amended disability onset date of October 1, 2008, due to hepatitis C,
depression, and arthritis. (R. 21, 171). After the SSA denied Spriggs’ claim, she
requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 107). The ALJ subsequently denied Spriggs’
claim, (R. 18-33), which became the final decision of the Commissioner when the
Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R. 1-6). Spriggs then filed this action for
judicial review pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 1.
II. Standard of Review
The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial
evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker,
672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal
standards. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v.
Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) mandates that
the Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if supported by ‘substantial
evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district
court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment
for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and
determine if the decision is “reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” See
id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of
evidence; “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Martin, 849 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth,
703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the
court must affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings even if the preponderance of
the evidence is against the Commissioner’s findings. See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529.
While the court acknowledges that judicial review of the ALJ’s findings is limited in
scope, it notes that the review “does not yield automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d
III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to engage
in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairments 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). A physical or mental impairment is “an
impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities
which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(g), 416.920(a)-(g). Specifically, the Commissioner must
determine in sequence:
whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer
to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and
five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step
three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (citing 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work
the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v.
Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Spriggs had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2008, and, therefore, met Step
One. (R. 23). Next, the ALJ found that Spriggs satisfied Step Two because she
suffered from the severe impairments of “chronic cervical pain, probably secondary to
muscle tension versus degenerative disc disease; chronic low back pain, secondary to
degenerative disc disease; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; learning disorder
by history; [and] major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate.” Id. The ALJ then
proceeded to the next step and found that Spriggs failed to satisfy Step Three because
she “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals one of the listed impairments.” (R. 24). Although the ALJ answered
Step Three in the negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030,
the ALJ proceeded to Step Four where he determined that Spriggs has the following
residual functional capacity (RFC):
She is restricted to performing light exertional work. She can
occasionally stoop but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She
should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and to vibrations.
She should avoid all exposure to unprotected heights and to dangerous
machinery. She would have mild restriction of activities of daily living,
mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and moderate
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. There is
no evidence of any episodes of decompensation, each of an extended
duration. She is restricted to unskilled and low stress work. She should
have casual interaction with the general public, supervisors and
coworkers. She would be unable to work in close proximity to others
because she would be easily distracted. She would be moderately
restricted in her ability to perform activities within a schedule and
maintain proper attendance.
(R. 25). In light of her RFC, the ALJ held that Spriggs “is unable to perform any past
relevant work.” (R. 31). Lastly, in Step Five, the ALJ considered Spriggs’ age,
education, work experience,1 and RFC, and determined “there are jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy [Spriggs] can perform.” (R. 32).
Therefore, the ALJ found that Spriggs “has not been under a disability, as defined in
the Social Security Act, from October 1, 2008, through the date of this decision.” (R.
As of the date of the ALJ’s decision, Spriggs was 43 years old, had a limited
education, and past relevant medium semi-skilled work as a production assembler and
poultry worker, and medium unskilled work as an egg packer (R. 31).
The court now turns to Spriggs’ contentions that the ALJ erred by (1) rejecting
the opinion of the SSA’s consultative psychological examiner; (2) failing to recontact
the consultative examiner; and (3) relying on the report of the State agency
psychiatrist. See doc. 9 at 7-12. The court addresses each contention in turn.
The ALJ properly evaluated the report from the consultative examiner.
Dr. John R. Haney, Ph.D., examined Spriggs on May 14, 2010, at the request of
the SSA. (R. 292-93). In his report, Dr. Haney opined that Spriggs’ “ability to
function in most jobs appeared moderately to severely impaired due to her physical
and emotional limitations.” (R. 293). Spriggs contends this opinion establishes she is
disabled, and that the ALJ erred in giving it little weight.
As a nontreating physician, Dr. Haney’s opinion was not entitled to controlling
weight under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Consequently, the ALJ had to consider
several factors to determine the weight, if any, to give Dr. Haney’s opinions. These
factors include whether Dr. Haney (1) had examined Spriggs; (2) had a treating
relationship with Spriggs; (3) presented medical evidence and explanation supporting
the opinion; (4) provided an opinion that is consistent with the record as a whole; and
(5) is a specialist. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). Moreover, the ALJ
“may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary
conclusion.” Bloodworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983). Indeed,
even a treating physician’s opinions, which are entitled to more deference than those
of Dr. Haney, may be rejected if the ALJ has “good cause.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125
F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).
The ALJ considered these factors, and ultimately gave “little weight” to Dr.
Haney’s opinion. (R. 31). In reaching this decision, the ALJ provided multiple
reasons–all of which are supported by substantial evidence– that constituted good
cause for rejecting Dr. Haney’s opinion. First, the ALJ properly considered that “Dr.
Haney only examined [Spriggs] one time and has not had a treating relationship with
[Spriggs].” Id. Next, consistent with the regulations, the ALJ noted that Dr. Haney
“based his opinion in part on the claimant’s physical limitations,” but that as a
psychologist, “any opinion by him regarding the claimant’s physical limitations is well
outside of his field of expertise.” Id. Finally, the ALJ found that “the medical
evidence of record does not show that the claimant has any more than moderate
limitations resulting from her mental impairments,” and referenced his earlier
discussion “concerning [Spriggs’] daily activities and lack of treatment.” Id.
A review of the ALJ’s earlier discussion shows that the ALJ properly
discounted Dr. Haney’s opinion based on her reported daily activities and her record
of sporadic treatment. For example, to support his finding that Spriggs’ mental
impairments cause only mild restrictions in her activities of daily living, the ALJ noted
that Spriggs reported that her daily activities included “cooking, cleaning, and doing
laundry,” that “she likes to draw, watch television, and ‘mess with my flowers,’” and
that Spriggs “reported driving and going outside two to three times a week.” (R. 29).
Likewise, to support his finding that Spriggs had only mild difficulties in maintaining
social functioning, the ALJ observed that Spriggs “reported that she gets along with
authority figures ‘O.K.’ and she has never been released from a job because of
problems getting along with other people.” Id. Finally, to support his finding with
respect to maintaining attention and concentration, the ALJ noted Spriggs reported
that “she could follow written and spoken instructions.” Id. These activities and
abilities provide substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s decision to give Dr.
Haney’s opinion little weight because an ALJ “may reject the opinion of any physician
when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.” Bloodworth, 703 F.2d at 1240.
Moreover, in assessing Spriggs’ allegations of anxiety and depression, the ALJ
noted that Spriggs was treated at the Community Free Clinic for complaints of
depression and anxiety from 2006 through 2008, and that she reported on October 28,
2008 “that she was sleeping better, her depression had improved, and she was feeling
better.” (R. 27-28). Significantly, the ALJ observed that Spriggs “did not return to
the Community Free Clinic for further treatment,” and noted that the record shows “no
further treatment for, nor complaint of, any type of mental problems” until Dr.
Haney’s consultative evaluation in May 2010. (R. 28). The ALJ also observed that
following Dr. Haney’s evaluation, Spriggs sought no further treatment until she saw
Dr. Jay T. Pohl at Hartselle Family Medicine in December 2010 for complaints of a
history of depression and anxiety attacks. Id. The ALJ remarked that Spriggs saw
Dr. Pohl only twice, and that on both visits Dr. Pohl’s psychological examinations
were normal and that he found Spriggs “was not anxious and had a normal affect.” Id.
Based on a review of the record, the court finds that the ALJ properly relied on
Spriggs’ sporadic treatment history to discount Dr. Haney’s opinion. See Petteway v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 353 F..App’x 287, 290 (11th Cir. 2009) (good cause exists to
reject a medical opinion when the record shows infrequent medical visits). Moreover,
Dr. Pohl’s findings of a normal affect with no anxiety shows that the evidence does
not bolster Dr. Haney’s opinion, which also provides good cause for rejecting it. See
Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440.
The ALJ was not required to recontact Dr. Haney.
Spriggs contends next that if the ALJ had concerns about Dr. Haney’s
examination, “it was incumbent on him to recontact Dr. Haney for clarification.” Doc.
9 at 11. Unfortunately, Spriggs’ contention misses the mark because the regulation
cited by Spriggs only requires the ALJ to contact the examiner if “the report is
inadequate or incomplete.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1519p, 416.919p. Here, Spriggs has not
made the requisite showing of inadequate or incompleteness. Accordingly, her
contention is without merit. Alternatively, Spriggs’ contention misses the mark
because she has not shown how the ALJ’s failure to contact Dr. Haney resulted in an
unfair proceeding or clear prejudice. Before remanding for further development of the
record, a reviewing court must consider “whether the record reveals evidentiary gaps
which result in unfairness or ‘clear prejudice.’” Smith v. Schweiker, 677 F.2d 826, 830
(11th Cir.1982) (quoting Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 413 (5th Cir. Unit A July
1981). Spriggs has not established the requisite prejudice because there are no
evidentiary gaps in the record that prevented the ALJ from making a conclusive
determination regarding her disability. Therefore, remand for development of the
record is not required.
The ALJ did not err by relying on the report of the State agency
Finally, Spriggs contends that the ALJ improperly relied on the report of Dr.
Robert Estock, the State agency reviewing psychiatrist. Doc. 9 at 11. However, the
record does not support Spriggs’ contention. In fact, an ALJ must consider the
findings of a State agency medical consultant, who is considered an expert, and must
explain the weight given to such findings in the same way as with other medical
sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(2). Consistent with the regulations, the ALJ gave
Dr. Estock’s opinion “more weight” than Dr. Haney’s opinion and explained his
I find that greater weight should be accorded to the opinion of Dr. Robert
Estock, the psychiatrist, who reviewed the evidence at the initial
consideration level. Dr. Estock reviewed the report of Dr. Haney and
other medical records as well and the documents submitted by the
claimant pursuant to her application and concluded that the claimant has
no more than moderate limitations in the mental residual functional
capacity assessment completed by him (Exhibit 7F).
Contrary to Spriggs’ contention, the ALJ committed no error because an ALJ
“may rely on opinions of nonexamining sources when they do not conflict with those
of examining sources,” Milner v. Barnhart, 275 F. App’x 947, 948 (11th Cir. 2008)
(citing Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584–85 (11th Cir.1991). There is no
conflict here because the ALJ did not rely on Dr. Estock’s report to reject the opinion
of Dr. Haney, but rather set forth independent reasons supported by substantial
evidence to support that decision. See supra Section V.A. Therefore, the court finds
the ALJ did not give excessive weight to Dr. Estock’s opinions.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Spriggs is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ applied
proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the Commissioner’s
final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance with the memorandum
of decision will be entered.
DONE this 22nd day of August, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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