Dockery v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 2/12/2015. (KAM, )
2015 Feb-13 AM 11:46
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CRAIG L. DOCKERY,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
Memorandum of Opinion
The plaintiff, Craig L. Dockery (“Dockery”), appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying him
application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Dockery 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).
Dockery was forty years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ’s”) decision. (Tr. at 55.) Dockery has a tenth grade education and has past
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work experience as a cable installer/repairer, wrecker/tow truck driver, lubrication
technician, and bagger. (Tr. at 92, 853–54.) Dockery alleges that his disability began
on October 25, 2002, due to anxiety, panic attacks, severe anger problems, bipolar
disorder, and shoulder and back pain (Tr. at 86.)
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible
for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d
1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making
a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will
proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first
step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial
gainful activity. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not
engaged in substantial gainful activity, the evaluator moves on to the next step.
The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the
plaintiff’s medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of
impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational
requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding
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of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision
depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d
1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the
record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).
Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the
plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to
the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed
impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and
416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
If the plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or
medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff’s
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See id. §§
404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether
the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See
id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff’s impairment or
combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant
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work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.
The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff’s RFC,
age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can
make an adjustment to other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If
the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work,
the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g),
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Dockery meets
the non-disability requirements for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI and was
insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 20.) He further determined that
Dockery has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his
disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Dockery had the following “severe”
impairments: bipolar disorder, intermittent and explosive disorder, and a mixed
personality disorder with paranoid, anti-social, and passive-aggressive traits. (Id.) The
ALJ next determined that Dockery’s impairments neither met nor were medically
equal to any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
(Tr. at 22.)
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Because Dockery could not be considered “disabled” based solely on whether
his impairments met or medically equaled those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, the ALJ
next assessed the effect of Dockery’s alleged impairments on his RFC. The ALJ found
that Dockery had an RFC that:
[E]nabled him to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following exertional limitations: He can perform unskilled work.
Due to deficiencies of concentration, persistence, and pace, he can have
no more than occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers and
should have no interaction with the general public.
(Tr. at 24.) The ALJ determined that Dockery’s RFC did not prevent Dockery from
performing past relevant work as a lubrication technician. (Tr. at 26.) Consequently,
the ALJ concluded that Dockery was not “under a disability” as defined in the Social
Security Act through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 28.)
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 Stone v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App’x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference
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to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by
substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v.
Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).
Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th
Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)).
“The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act
with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing 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 proof preponderates
against the Commissioner’s decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520,
1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for
review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its entirety
to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d
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622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)).
Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See
Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Dockery alleges that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and remanded for
two reasons. First, Dockery argues that the ALJ erred in not granting substantial
weight to the opinion evidence of two examining physicians. Second, Dockery argues
that the ALJ improperly discredited Dockery’s testimony concerning the severity of
Weight Given to Medical Opinions
Dockery argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of two examining
psychologists, Dr. Jon Rogers and Dr. John Haney. Dockery further argues that,
because of this error, the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Dr.
Rogers examined Dockery at the request of his counsel on January 9, 2009. Dr. Rogers
reported that Dockery suffered from “marked” limitations in his ability to deal with
changes in a routine work setting; to understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions; to respond to customary work pressures; and to maintain attention,
concentration, or pace for periods of at least two hours. (Tr. 388–89.)
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However, the ALJ rejected Dr. Rogers’s opinion, citing it as inconsistent with
the opinions found in the treatment notes of Dockery’s treating physicians, Dr.
Edward Love and Dr. Daniel McDonough, who combined to provide in-depth therapy
sessions for Dockery from May 2007 to at least July 2011.1 According to the ALJ, these
doctors’ treatment notes showed that Dockery’s condition significantly improved
through therapy and medication. (Tr. 25–26.)
The weight to be afforded a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity
of a claimant’s impairments depends, among other things, upon the examining and
treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the
medical source presents to support the opinion, how consistent the opinion is with the
record as a whole, and the specialty of the medical source. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(d). An ALJ is not required to afford special deference to opinions from
non-treating medical sources. See McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir.
1987). However, an ALJ is required to explain the weight given to different medical
opinions, regardless of whether the source in question was a treating physician. See
Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987).
In determining the weight to give Dr. Rogers’s opinion, the ALJ noted that Dr.
Both the ALJ and the parties attribute all treatment notes to Dr. Love. However, the
medical records show that Dr. McDonough became Dockery’s primary therapist in 2009.
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Rogers examined Dockery only once. (Tr. 25.) The ALJ emphasized that Dr. Rogers’s
assessment was inconsistent with the treating physicians’ notes, which indicated that
Dockery had improved significantly from August 2007 to July 2011. (Tr. 25–26.) As
the ALJ noted, Dr. McDonough wrote in November 2009 that Dockery’s symptoms
relating to his intermittent explosive disorder and anxiety had “basically stabilized.”
(Tr. 23, 674.) The ALJ pointed out that Dr. McDonough had a similar opinion in July
2011, as Dr. McDonough stated that Dockery’s “anxiety [was] in good control
overall.”(Tr. 621.) Finally, the ALJ noted that Dr. Rogers stated in his report that he
relied primarily upon Dockery’s subjective complaints in reaching his opinion. (Tr.
25.) Thus, the ALJ sufficiently explained his reasons for discounting Dr. Rogers’s
While the ALJ’s decision includes a thorough discussion of Dr. Rogers’s
examination, it contains only a passing reference to Dr. Haney’s findings. Dr. Haney
performed a one-time consultative examination of Dockery on January 12, 2007, and
diagnosed Dockery with bipolar disorder, possible intermittent explosive disorder, and
polysubstance abuse, in early partial remission. (Tr. 225–26.) Haney stated that, in his
opinion, Dockery’s “ability to function in most jobs appeared moderately to severely
impaired,” and that Dockery’s condition would “probably remain unchanged in the
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next six to twelve months.” (Tr. 226.)
While ALJ mentioned Dr. Haney’s January 2007 assessment in his decision, he
did not explain the weight given to Dr. Haney’s opinion. An ALJ’s failure to explain
the weight given to a medical opinion can constitute reversible error. See Sharfarz, 825
F.2d at 279. However, when an ALJ’s failure to explain the weight given to a medical
source opinion does not affect his final decision, that error is harmless. See Caldwell
v. Barnhart, 261 F. App’x 188, 191 (11th Cir. 2008) (stating that an ALJ’s failure to
explain the weight given to a medical opinion is harmless error when the overlooked
medical opinion does not conflict with the medical evidence relied upon or with the
ALJ’s ultimate finding).
Here, the ALJ relied primarily upon Dr. Love and Dr. McDonough’s treatment
notes. These notes do not begin until May 2007 and show what the ALJ considered
to be a gradual improvement over the course of four years in Dockery’s ability to
manage his impairments. According to the ALJ, Dr. Love’s and Dr. McDonough’s
treatment notes show progress that occurred well after Dr. Haney’s January 2007
examination of Dockery. Therefore, there is no inconsistency between the two
medical sources, and the ALJ’s failure to explain the weight given to Dr. Haney’s
report is harmless error. Furthermore, Haney’s opinion—that Dockery’s ability to
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work was “moderately to severely impaired”—is based on a one-time examination,
does not offer an in-depth explanation or basis, and concerns a matter reserved to the
Commissioner for final determination. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1)–(3). The
Eleventh Circuit has suggested that an ALJ’s failure to explain the weight given to
such evidence is, at worst, harmless error. See Tillman v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin.,
559 F. App’x 975, 975–76 (11th Cir. 2014) (finding that the ALJ’s failure to explain the
weight given to a medical opinion “did not affect the result in [claimant’s] case,” and
specifically noting that the medical source in question “did not offer any detailed
explanation supporting [the] opinion,” and that the opinion “concerned matters
ultimately reserved to the Commissioner for final determination”).
In reaching his determination, the ALJ chose to rely primarily on Dr. Love’s
and Dr. McDonough’s treatment notes, which are replete with opinions indicating
that Dockery’s impairments were well-managed through therapy and medication.2 A
treating physician’s opinion is entitled to “substantial or considerable weight unless
‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.” Crawford v. Commissioner of Social Security,
363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440
While the treatment notes also indicate that Dockery occasionally had lapses in anger
management, the ALJ referenced many of these in reaching his decision, and crafted an RFC that
limits Dockery’s interactions with the public and co-workers (See Tr. 23–24.)
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(11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotations omitted)). Thus, the positive opinions concerning
Dockery’s condition found in the treatment notes constitute substantial evidence in
support of the ALJ’s decision.
The ALJ’s Evaluation of Dockery’s Credibility
Dockery also argues that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and remanded
because the ALJ failed to properly apply the Eleventh Circuit’s “pain standard” when
assessing Dockery’s subjective complaints of symptoms. Dockery testified that he
routinely has violent thoughts, that his medication causes sleepiness, and that he is
unable to concentrate on simple tasks. (Tr. 824–26, 846–52.) Dockery further alleges
that, due to his anxiety, he does not usually leave the home and that he is prone to
“black out” when he becomes enraged. (Tr. 822, 846–52.)
Subjective testimony of pain and other symptoms may establish the presence
of a disabling impairment if it is supported by medical evidence. See Foote v. Chater,
67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). To establish a disability based upon pain and
subjective symptoms, the Eleventh Circuit has set forth a three-part standard: “The
pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2)
objective medical evidence that the confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising
from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such
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a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.” Dyer v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221,
1223 (11th Cir. 1991)); see also Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551, 1553 (11th Cir. 1986).
Meeting the pain standard does not automatically end the ALJ’s analysis if the
ALJ rejects the plaintiff’s complaints for lack of credibility. See Foote, 67 F.3d at 156061 (meeting the judicial pain standard is only a threshold inquiry and the ALJ may
reject the complaints by offering specific reasons); Marbury v. Sullivan, 957 F.2d 837,
839 (11th Cir. 1992) (“After considering a claimant’s complaints of pain [under the
above standard], the ALJ may reject them as not credible, and that determination will
be reviewed for substantial evidence.”) (citing Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 513, 517
(11th Cir. 1984)). The ALJ must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for
discrediting the claimant’s subjective testimony of pain and other symptoms. Wilson
v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Soc. Sec. R. 96-7p, 1996 WL
374186 (1996) (“[T]he adjudicator must carefully consider the individual’s statements
about symptoms with the rest of the relevant evidence in the case record in reaching
a conclusion about the credibility of the individual’s statements.”). Although the
Eleventh Circuit does not require explicit findings as to credibility, “‘the implication
must be obvious to the reviewing court.’” Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Foote, 67
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F.3d at 1562). “[P]articular phrases or formulations” do not have to be cited in an
ALJ’s credibility determination, but it cannot be a “broad rejection” which is “not
enough to enable [the district court] to conclude that [the ALJ] considered her
medical condition as a whole.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).
The ALJ found that Dockery’s medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that Dockery’s statements
concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not
credible to the extent they were inconsistent with the RFC assessment. (Tr. at 24.) In
discrediting Dockery’s testimony, the ALJ emphasized that it was inconsistent with
the treatment notes of Dr. McDonough and Dr. Love. (Tr. 23, 26.) The treatment
notes indicate that Dockery responded well to his medications: Dr. McDonough
reported that claimant “actually likes [a new medication] which helps him keep calm
and gives him some energy during the day,” and that Dockery was “doing well in
regards to his underlying irritability and mood symptoms.” (Tr. 629, 666.) The ALJ
cited numerous other comments made by Dockery’s doctors suggesting that his
condition was under control. (Tr. 23, 26.) Improvement of symptoms while on
medication can suggest that a plaintiff’s allegations are not credible. See Stout v.
Shalala, 988 F.2d 853, 855 (8th Cir. 1993) (“If an impairment can be controlled by
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treatment or medication, it cannot be considered disabling.”); Gross v. Heckler, 785
F.2d 1163, 1166 (4th Cir. 1986) (noting that a symptom reasonably controlled by
medication or treatment is not disabling).
In making his credibility determination, the ALJ cited to medical opinions from
Dockery’s treating physicians and statements from Dockery that conflicted with his
testimony about the severity of his symptoms. These sources constitute “substantial
evidence” upon which the ALJ may base his credibility determination. Furthermore,
while Dockery argues that the ALJ’s credibility assessment failed to account for the
longitudinal record, the ALJ’s decision includes a summary of Dockery’s medical
history dating back to 1995. An ALJ is not required to mention every piece of evidence
when making a credibility assessment, and the fact that the ALJ chose to stress the
more recent medical evidence—treatment notes from Dockery’s primary physicians
made over the course of four years—is not grounds for reversal.
Dockery also argues that the ALJ improperly discredited his testimony on the
basis of his poor work history and one-time trip to a matinee of a movie. Dockery
argues that his poor work history is a result of his anger and anxiety problems.
However, Dockery indicated as part of his disability application that he quit his job at
a service station in 2005 because of a shoulder injury and his inability to secure reliable
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transportation to work, rather than problems related to his impairments. (Tr. 95.)
While the ALJ used Dockery’s one-time trip to the movies as a reason to doubt his
testimony about the severity of his symptoms, the ALJ’s RFC determination
nevertheless accounts for Dockery’s anxiety towards interacting with strangers . (Tr.
24.) Furthermore, as this Court has already explained, the statements found in the
treating physicians’ notes establish a sufficient basis for the ALJ to discredit
In sum, the ALJ specifically addressed Dockery’s allegations of symptoms and
provided explicit and detailed reasons why the evidence that Dockery offered was not
fully credible. See Allen v. Sullivan, 880 F.2d 1200, 1203 (11th Cir. 1989) (ALJ
properly discredited the plaintiff’s testimony where he specifically articulated at least
three reasons for rejecting the plaintiff’s subjective complaints). For the reasons
discussed, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Dockery’s
impairments are not of such intensity or persistence that they prevent him from
performing full range of work with the appropriate non-exertional limitations,
including his previous work as a lubrication technician. (Tr. at 24, 26.)
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Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Mr. Dockery’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.
A separate Order will be entered.
Done this 12th day of February 2015.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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