Allred v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 8/28/2014. (PSM)
2014 Aug-28 AM 11:36
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DONNA J. ALLRED,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Donna J. Allred (“Allred”) 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
Allred, whose past relevant experience includes work as a dispatcher,
bookkeeper, and receptionist, filed an application for Title II disability insurance
benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on January 10, 2010,
alleging an amended disability onset date of January 26, 2010, due to migraines,
fibromyalgia, arthritis, sleep disorder, depression, carpal tunnel syndrome, and
insomnia. (R. 21, 188). After the SSA denied Allred’s claim, she requested a
hearing before an ALJ. (R. 107). The ALJ subsequently denied Allred’s claim,
(R. 18-30), which became the final decision of the Commissioner when the
Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R. 1-6). Allred 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 at 701.
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.
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 Allred had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 26, 2010, and, therefore,
met Step One. (R. 23). Next, the ALJ found that Allred satisfied Step Two
because she suffered from the severe impairments of a “history of pelvic
adhesions status post laparoscopy of April 2010.” Id. The ALJ then proceeded
to the next step and found that Allred 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. 26). 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 she determined that Allred
has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to
meet the exertional demands of light or less work as defined in 20
CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). She occasionally can climb
ramps and stairs but cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She
occasionally can balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.
(R. 26). In light of her RFC, the ALJ held that Allred “is capable of performing
past relevant work as a dispatcher, bookkeeper, and receptionist.” (R. 29).
Therefore, the ALJ found that Allred “has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, from January 26, 2010, through the date of this
The court now turns to Allred’s contentions that the ALJ erred because
she (1) improperly relied on testimony from a vocational expert (VE); and (2)
rejected the opinion of the SSA consultative mental examiner. See doc. 10 at 611. The court addresses each contention in turn.
The Vocational Expert’s Testimony
Allred contends the ALJ erred because “[t]he VE’s testimony was clearly
unreliable . . . on the issue of whether [Allred] could perform past work which
was all skilled and semiskilled.” Doc. 10 at 7. According to Allred, “[t]he
ALJ’s restriction to simple, routine tasks involving no more than short, simple
instructions and simple work related decision making with few workplace
changes essentially limited [Allred] to unskilled work which would not allow for
the . . . jobs of dispatcher, bookkeeper and receptionist as previously identified
[by the ALJ].” Id. (citations to the record omitted) (emphasis in original).
Unfortunately for Allred, her contention misses the mark because the ALJ’s
RFC finding did not contain any of these restrictions.1 The ALJ relied instead
on the VE’s answer to a hypothetical question that Allred concedes “exactly
matched the assigned RFC in the decision.” (R. 26, 72); doc. 10 at 4.
Therefore, the VE’s testimony in response to the hypothetical question limiting
Allred to unskilled work was irrelevant, and Allred’s argument is without merit.
The SSA Consultative Mental Examiner’s Report
Allred’s final contention is that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion
of Dr. John Haney, Ph.D., the SSA consultative psychological examiner. Doc.
10 at 8-11; (R. 375). Dr. Haney, Ph.D., examined Allred on March 25, 2010,
and opined that Allred’s “ability to function in most jobs appeared moderately to
severely impaired due to her physical and emotional limitations.” (R. 375).
Allred 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.
To the extent Allred’s contention on this issue challenges the ALJ’s RFC
finding, Allred has failed to meet her burden of properly presenting this issue for
review. See Singh v. U.S. Att’y Gen., 561 F.3d 1275, 1278 (11th Cir.2009) (“[S]imply
stating that an issue exists, without further argument or discussion, constitutes
abandonment of that issue and precludes our considering the issue on appeal.”).
Haney’s opinions. These factors include whether Dr. Haney (1) had examined
Allred; (2) had a treating relationship with Allred; (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. 25). 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’s opinion “is not specific to what mental
attributes the claimant is limited in,” id., because a physician’s failure to provide
an explanation to support his opinion entitles it to less weight. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.1527(c)(3). Second, the ALJ properly considered that Dr. Haney’s opinion
“appears to be based solely upon the claimant’s subjective reports.” (R. 34); see
Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (ALJ
may reject a physician’s opinion when it “appears to be based primarily on [a
claimant’s] subjective complaints”). Third, the ALJ properly considered that Dr.
Haney’s opinion “is based upon a onetime examination,” (R. 25), because
“[g]enerally, [the ALJ] give[s] more weight to opinions from . . . treating
sources.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2). Fourth, the ALJ noted that Dr. Haney’s
“opinion does not appear to coincide with the notations from the examination,”
(R. 25) which provides good cause for rejecting it. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125
F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (good cause exists when the opinion is
inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records). Indeed, as the ALJ noted,
Dr. Haney’s clinical interview showed that Allred’s “recent and remote memory
was intact,” that her “conversation was logical and goal directed,” and that
Allred “reported she went into work if she was needed,” (R. 25), which contrasts
with his finding of a moderate to severe impairment in her ability to work.
Finally, the ALJ found Dr. Haney’s opinion did not coincide with the record as a
whole, and noted that the “record does not show any current medication for
mental impairments taken by the claimant nor is the claimant receiving any
ongoing mental health treatment.” Id. The ALJ properly relied on Allred’s lack
of treatment for her mental impairments to reject Dr. Haney’s opinion because
good cause exists to reject a medical opinion when the record shows infrequent
medical visits. See Petteway v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 353 F.App’x 287, 290
(11th Cir. 2009).
Ultimately, based on the record before this court, it is evident that the ALJ
considered the factors set forth in the regulations and, consistent with the law of
this circuit, articulated good cause for giving Dr. Haney’s opinions little weight.
Because the ALJ’s reasons are supported by substantial evidence, she committed
no reversible error.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Allred 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 28th day of August, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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