Anderson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 7/24/2014. (JLC)
2014 Jul-24 PM 02:51
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
VANDORA MAPLES ANDERSON, )
) Case No.: 5:13-CV-1322-VEH
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING )
Plaintiff Vandora Maples Anderson brings this action under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final
adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”), who denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).1 Ms. Anderson timely pursued
and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant
seeks DIB or 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 of statutes or regulations
found in quoted court decisions.
case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).2 For the following reasons, the
court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s decision.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Ms. Anderson was 54 years old at the time of her hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Compare Tr. 154 with Tr. 22. She has a high
school education. Tr. 159. Her past work experience includes employment as a tire
builder and inspector. Tr. 159. She claims she became disabled on April 15, 2004, due
to fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis in her knees and back, acid reflux, and depression. Tr.
158.3 Her last period of work ended on that date. Id.
On April 19, 2010, Ms. Anderson protectively filed a Title II application for
a period of disability and DIB. Tr. 22. She also protectively filed a Title XVI
application for SSI on that date. Id. On August 20, 2010, the Commissioner initially
denied these claims. Id. Ms. Anderson timely filed a written request for a hearing on
October 4, 2010. Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on November 16,
2011. Id. On December 29, 2011, he issued his opinion concluding Ms. Anderson was
not disabled and denying her benefits. Tr. 31. She timely petitioned the Appeals
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) renders the judicial review provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) fully
applicable to claims for SSI.
On November 8, 2011, Ms. Anderson amended her disability onset date to March 25,
2007. Tr. 153.
Council to review the decision on February 10, 2012. Tr. 14. On May 16, 2013, the
Appeals Council issued a denial of review on her claim. Tr. 1.
Ms. Anderson filed a Complaint with this court on July 16, 2013, seeking
review of the Commissioner’s determination. Doc. 1. The Commissioner answered
on October 31, 2013. Doc. 7. Ms. Anderson filed a supporting brief (doc. 11) on
December 13, 2013, and the Commissioner responded with her own (doc. 12) on
January 14, 2014.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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 (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, 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 that 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).
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.4 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 an entitlement to
disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a “physical or mental
impairment” that “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
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.
diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.
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
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 formerly applicable
C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 56263 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).
The sequential analysis goes as follows:
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 that such work exists in the national economy
in significant numbers. Id.
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:
Ms. Anderson met the insured status requirements of the Social Security
Act through September 30, 2010.
She had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 15, 2004,
the alleged disability onset date.
She had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis; mild
degenerative disc disease, (DDD); fibromyalgia; hyperthyroidism;
status/post left-knee surgery; and carpal tunnel.
She did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
She had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than
the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b). She was restricted to performing the following postural
activities on an occasional basis only – climbing, kneeling, stooping,
crouching, and crawling. She should avoid exposure to workplace
hazards, such as moving machinery and unprotected heights.
She was unable to perform any past relevant work.
She was born on [redacted], and was 47 years old, which is defined as
a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability date.
She had at least a high school education and was able to communicate
Transferability of job skills was not material to the determination of
disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework
supported a finding that s/he was “not disabled,” whether or not she had
transferable job skills.
Considering her age, education, work experience, and residual
functioning capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers
in the national economy that she could perform.
She had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from April 15, 2004, through the date of this decision.
The court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “This 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
F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th
Cir. 1980)). However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Ms. Anderson urges this court to reverse the Commissioner’s decision to deny
her benefits on two grounds: (1) the ALJ relied on the opinion of a State Agency
single decisionmaker in formulating his RFC determination, and (2) the ALJ failed
to obtain a medical source opinion from a physician formally evaluating her
functional abilities. Doc. 11 at 6-11. The court finds neither argument persuasive and
instead concludes that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s decision to deny Ms.
The ALJ Did Not Reversibly Err in Crediting the State Agency
Ms. Anderson first complains that the ALJ credited the opinion of Richard
Schmidt, a State Agency “single decisionmaker” (“SDM”) disability specialist.
Because Mr. Schmidt is not an acceptable medical source under the Regulations, Ms.
Anderson argues that the ALJ should not have deferred to Mr. Schmidt’s opinion.
Doc. 11 at 7. Instead, the ALJ mistakenly characterized Mr. Schmidt as a medical
consultant and afforded “great weight” to his vocational assessment. Tr. 29. Thus,
according to Ms. Anderson, there was no medical source opinion on record that
adequately evaluated her functional abilities. Doc. 11 at 8. In light of this fact, she
contends that the ALJ compounded his error by not obtaining such an opinion. Id.
These complaints do not justify reversal. The court in Malone v. Colvin, 5:12CV-514-LSC, 2013 WL 4502075 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 22, 2013), recently explained the
SDM system as it operates in Alabama:
Federal law permits states to test modifications to the disability determination
process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.906. As part of an experiment to expedite the
processing of applications, SDMs may make initial disability determinations
in Alabama without the signature of a medical consultant. See Modifications
to the Disability Determination Procedures, Extension of Testing of Some
Disability Redesign Features, 71 Fed. Reg. 45890, 2006 WL 2283653 (Aug.
10, 2006); 20 C.F.R. § 404.906 . . . It is the Commissioner’s policy that SDMcompleted forms are not opinion evidence and, upon appeal from an initial
denial, are entitled no weight. See Program Operations Manual System
(POMS) D1 24510.05, 2001 WL 1933365.
Id. at *4. As in this case, the ALJ in Malone had relied on a functional assessment of
the claimant offered by a non-examining State Agency SDM. Id. Indeed, the ALJ
there placed “significant” weight on that opinion and – as occurred here – erroneously
characterized the SDM as a physician. Id. Nevertheless, the Malone court found this
error harmless for two reasons:
the ALJ’s ultimate RFC determination was more restrictive than the
SDM’s opinion; and
substantial record evidence – which the ALJ meticulously documented
– supported the determination.
Id. (citing Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1423 (11th Cir. 1997); Castel v. Astrue,
355 F. App’x 260, 265-66 (11th Cir. 2009) (unpublished) (concluding ALJ did not
err in referring to a report that may have been completed by a SDM where the ALJ
did not place great weight on the report, the report merely confirmed the objective
medical evidence, and thus any error was harmless); Diorio v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 726,
728 (11th Cir. 1983) (applying the harmless error doctrine to an ALJ’s determination
in a social security case)). The court also did not fault the absence of any MSO in the
record. “[T]he Commissioner’s regulations do not require the ALJ to base his RFC
finding to include such an opinion on an RFC assessment from a medical source.
Therefore, the failure to include such an opinion at the State agency level does not
render the ALJ’s RFC assessment invalid.” Id. at *5 (quoting Langley v. Astrue, 777
F. Supp. 2d 1250, 1261 (N.D. Ala. 2011)). Nor does the ALJ need to rely on a formal
RFC assessment issued by a physician. Id. (citing Langley, 777 F. Supp. 2d at 125758 (citing Green v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 223 F. App’x 915, 923-24 (unpublished)
(11th Cir. 2007)).
The court finds this reasoning persuasive and that such considerations prevail
in this case. The ALJ here incorrectly labeled Mr. Schmidt a medical consultant when
he was not. Tr. 29. And, he wrongly afforded great weight to Mr. Schmidt’s
conclusion that Ms. Anderson could perform the full range of light work. Id. But,
these were harmless errors for the same reasons identified in Malone. First, the ALJ
did not accept Mr. Schmidt’s determination wholesale. He instead added certain
limitations to the RFC that reflected the particularities of Ms. Anderson’s condition.
The ALJ did this, importantly, “based on the totality of evidence” – that is, not
exclusively on Mr. Schmidt’s opinion. Tr. 29 (emphasis added).
Furthermore, the record substantially supported the ALJ’s RFC determination.
As noted above, he concluded that, despite her limitations, Ms. Anderson could still
perform “less than the full range of light work” and prescribed certain postural
restrictions on her abilities. Tr. 26-27. The Regulations define light work in the
Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent
lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the
weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good
deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with
some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of
performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do
substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we determine
that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting
factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of time.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). The ALJ arrived at this judgment after comprehensively
reviewing Ms. Anderson’s medical evidence. He recorded the various accidents and
injuries she claimed to have suffered. He examined the treatment and progress notes
her physicians submitted, including the results of diagnostic imaging tests she
underwent. Finally, he reviewed assessments made of Ms. Anderson’s impairments
by Mr. Schmidt, Dr. Dwain E. Woode – who treated her for her hyperthyroidism –
and her chiropractor, Greg Millar, DC, CCEP.5
Ms. Anderson alleged pain as the source of her disability. Tr. 45. The court will
The ALJ assigned little weight to Dr. Millar’s opinion that Ms. Anderson was
permanently disabled because – among other reasons – chiropractors are not acceptable medical
sources under the Regulations. Tr. 29. Ms. Anderson apparently does not contest this devaluation
of Dr. Millar’s opinion. Regardless, the ALJ’s decision was appropriate. See Crawford v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1160 (11th Cir. 2004) (“[T]he ALJ’s decision to discount
chiropractor Reckford’s opinion was supported by substantial evidence for two reasons. First,
Reckford is not considered an “acceptable source” and, thus, his opinion cannot establish the
existence of an impairment.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a), 416.913(a)).
thus examine whether the ALJ properly evaluated Ms. Anderson’s pain-based
allegations under the prevailing standards in this Circuit. A claimant who seeks “to
establish a disability based on testimony of pain and other symptoms” must show the
Evidence of an underlying medical condition; and
objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged
that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably
be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.
Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). An ALJ
must articulate “explicit and adequate reasons” in order to discredit subjective
testimony. Id. (citation omitted). Failure to do so “requires, as a matter of law, that the
testimony be accepted as true.” Id. (citation omitted). However, the ALJ does not
need to “specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision,” so long as the
decision shows that the ALJ considered the claimant's medical condition as a whole.
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted).
The ALJ here was both explicit and convincing in explaining why he
discredited Ms. Anderson’s allegations regarding the disabling effects of her pain. He
first conceded that there was objective evidence substantiating some of her alleged
medical conditions. Tr. 28. He then marshaled substantial evidence undermining Ms.
Anderson’s claims as to the severity of her alleged pain and to the disabling effects
such pain ostensibly had on her. This evidence included the following facts:
Progress notes dated October 13, 2009, from Dynamic Performance
Physical Therapy reflected that her pain levels subsided after completing
her round of therapy;
Although she fractured her talus in a January 2010 motor vehicle
accident, x-rays performed by the Orthopedic Center from (on or
around) April 26, 2010, revealed that the talus had healed, and the
Center accordingly ended her treatment;
Medical records from Athens-Limestone Hospital related to her January
14, 2011, emergency room visit revealed that “she ambulated alone and
An MRI performed by Village Healthcare dated June 28, 2011, on her
spine did not show any abnormally-enhancing foci; and
While Dr. Woode noted that she had a diffusely enlarged thyroid and
suffered from fatigue and thryotoxicosis, she nevertheless had “full
range of motion, no swelling or deformity . . . suffered no clubbing,
cyanosis, or edema.”
Altogether, the ALJ provided “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person
would accept as adequate to support [his] conclusion.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at
1239. While he mischaracterized the SDM here as a medical consultant and
erroneously credited his opinion, these were harmless errors. The ALJ did not rotely
rely on Mr. Schmidt’s RFC determination. Instead, he crafted a more restrictive RFC
that was suitably grounded in the record. The court thus finds his analysis
The ALJ Had No Further Duty to Develop the Record.
Ms. Anderson next argues that, because there was no MSO or RFC assessment
by a physician on record, the ALJ should have ordered such an assessment by a
medical expert. Doc. 11 at 9-10. She further suggests as an alternative that the ALJ
could have conducted a supplemental hearing at which such an expert could have
testified to her RFC. Id. at 10. By failing to do such, the ALJ supposedly failed his
fundamental duty to develop the record. Id.
These claims are meritless. As a general matter, Social Security proceedings
“are inquisitorial rather than adversarial.” Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 111 (2000).
The ALJ thus has the duty “to investigate the facts and develop the arguments both
for and against granting benefits.” Id. (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389,
400-01 (1971)). The ALJ’s duty to “fully and fairly develop the record,” Coward v.
Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735-36 (11th Cir. 1981), exists whether or not the applicant
is represented. Brown v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 931, 934 (11th Cir. 1995). When the
claimant is unrepresented, however, the ALJ’s duty is heightened. See Smith v.
Schweiker, 677 F.2d 826, 829 (11th Cir. 1982). Ms. Anderson was legally represented
in his hearing below. Tr. 35. Thus, the ALJ had no special duty to “scrupulously and
conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts.” Id.
Still, an ALJ must “develop the claimant's complete medical history for at least
the 12 months preceding the month in which the application was filed, and to make
every reasonable effort to help a claimant get medical reports from the claimant's own
medical sources when permission is given.” Robinson v. Astrue, 235 F. App'x 725,
727 (11th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(d)). “Nevertheless,
the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is
responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” Ellison v. Barnhart, 355
F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam).
The record shows that the ALJ here met these basic obligations. He
documented Ms. Anderson’s medical history dating back to at least 2006. Tr. 27. This
review included recording her various accidents and the ramifications those
misfortunes visited on her physical condition. The ALJ further elicited evaluations
of her mental and physical healthy by State Agency personnel. He fielded diagnostic
testing results concerning Ms. Anderson’s ailments from her various health care
providers over the years. The longitudinal nature of these tests – stretched, as they
were, over several years – arguably allowed the ALJ to track whether Ms. Anderson’s
condition had progressively worsened. And, finally, he analyzed assessments
performed on Ms. Anderson by Dr. Woode and Dr. Millar, who were able to
personally examine her.
Ms. Anderson’s gravamen is that there was (and is) no formal MSO on record
evaluating her functional capabilities. As has been shown, however, such a statement
is not essential. See Langley, 777 F. Supp. 2d at 1258 (“[T]he law of this Circuit does
not require an RFC from a physician.”) (citing Green, 223 F. App’x at 922-24);
Johnson v. Astrue, No. CA 11-0460-C, 2012 WL 1565644, at *11 (S.D. Ala. May 2,
2012) (“The Court need reject plaintiff’s argument that the Commissioner, through
the ALJ, cannot render an RFC assessment that is not supported by the medical
opinion of a treating or examining medical source.”) (citing Green, 223 F. App’x at
923-24). For this reason, the court rejects Ms. Anderson’s argument that the ALJ here
failed to develop the record.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the parties’
submissions, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by
substantial evidence and that she applied proper legal standards in arriving at it.
Accordingly, the decision will be affirmed by separated order.
DONE and ORDERED this the 24th day of July, 2014.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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