Teague v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 3/24/2015. (PSM)
2015 Mar-24 AM 09:54
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
The plaintiff, Wendy F. Teague, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying
her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Ms. Teague timely
pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the decision of the
Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Ms. Teague was forty years old at the time of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision, and she has an eighth grade education. (Tr. at 117,
147.) Her past work experiences include employment as a short order cook and a
housekeeper. (Tr. at 54, 147.) Ms. Teague claims that she became disabled on
December 31, 2010, due to asthma, anxiety, and back pain. (Tr. at 24.)
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus
eligible for 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 (“SGA”).
See id. §§
If the plaintiff is engaged in SGA, 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
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
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.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
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
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 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), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
Applying the steps, the ALJ first determined that Ms. Teague has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr.
at 20.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff’s degenerative disc disease, asthma, and
anxiety are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the
regulations. (Id.) However, he found that these impairments neither meet nor
medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. (Tr. at 20-1.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Teague’s allegations to be
totally credible, and he determined that she has the RFC to perform light work with
the following additional limitations: no more than occasional climbing of ramps and
stairs, but frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; she
should avoid temperature extremes, such as extreme heat or extreme cold; she
should avoid exposure to unprotected heights; she should avoid concentrated
exposure to pulmonary irritants, such as dust, gas, fumes, odors, and the like; she is
limited to unskilled work; and she is limited to only occasional interactions with the
public. (Tr. at 22.)
According to the ALJ, Ms. Teague is unable to perform any of her past
relevant work, she is a “younger individual,” and she has a “limited education,” as
those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 27.) He determined that
“transferability of skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant’s past
relevant work is unskilled.” (Id.) The ALJ used Medical-Vocation Rule 201.25 as a
guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national
economy that she is capable of performing, such as production packer, garment
folder, and photo finisher. (Tr. at 27.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating
that Plaintiff was “not under a ‘disability,’ as defined in the Social Security Act,
since March 16, 2011, the date the application was filed.” (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 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.
“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 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).
Ms. Teague alleges that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and
remanded because the ALJ erred in giving little weight to the opinion of the onetime consultative examiner. (Doc. 11 at 6.) As a corollary to that argument, she also
argues that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record by failing to re-contact the
consultative examiner for clarification of his opinion. (Doc. 11 at 8.) The plaintiff
also argues in passing that the ALJ’s hypothetical posed to the vocational expert
was incomplete, so that argument will be addressed as well.
A. Medical Opinion Evidence
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Haney’s
psychological consultative examination. (Doc. 11 at 9.) Dr. Haney performed a onetime clinical interview with Ms. Teague on June 21, 2011. (Tr. at 256-57.) Dr.
Haney recorded Ms. Teague’s reported physical problems, including: “ruptured
discs in her neck, other bulging discs, arthritis, asthma, migraine headaches, carpal
tunnel, depression, panic attacks, and back pain.” (Tr. at 256.) Dr. Haney further
noted that Ms. Teague exhibited non-psychotic symptoms, but that she did admit
to feeling depressed, which she attributed to her physical problems and financial
stress. (Id.) Dr. Haney found that Ms. Teague mostly stays home, does light
household chores, and watches television. (Tr. at 257.) Dr. Haney concluded that
Ms. Teague’s “ability to function in most jobs appeared moderately to severely
impaired due to physical, emotional[,] and vocational limitations.” (Id.) The ALJ
rejected Dr. Haney’s conclusion regarding Ms. Teague’s ability to function in most
jobs and instead considered the assessments of other physicians as well as Dr.
Haney’s assessment to conclude that there were jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that Ms. Teague can perform. (Tr. at 25-27.)
Consultative opinions from non-treating physicians, such as the opinion
given by Dr. Haney, are not entitled to the same controlling weight accorded to
treating source opinions. See 20 C.F.R. §416.927(c)(2); Wilson v. Heckler, 734
F.2d, 513, 518 (11th Cir. 1984). Instead, the ALJ weighs non-controlling medical
opinions in light of: (1) the length and frequency of the treatment or examination,
(2) the nature and extent of the relationship, (3) the supportability of the opinion,
(4) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, and (5) the
specialization of the source. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). “[T]he ALJ is free to
reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary
conclusion.” Syrock v. Heckler, 764 F. 2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985). The application
of the above factors may result in the ALJ according the greatest weight to the
opinion of a non-examining source. Wilkinson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 289 F. App’x
384, 386 (11th Cir. 2008) (finding ALJ properly accorded greater weight to nonexamining state agency physician where the examining physician’s opinion was not
supported by the evidence).
There is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the ALJ’s
use of the above factors to discredit Dr. Haney’s opinion. First, Dr. Haney is a
psychologist, and the ALJ correctly found that he had no basis, justification, or
expertise in evaluating Ms. Teague’s physical or vocational limitations. (Tr. at 25.)
A specialist’s opinion about medical issues is given weight when the opinion and
issues are related to his or her specialty. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(5). Substantial
evidence thus supports the ALJ’s decision to reject Dr. Haney’s physical and
vocational limitations. The ALJ instead relied on medical records and findings
from Ms. Teague’s primary care physician, orthopedist, and pain management
specialists regarding her physical limitations (tr. at 53-59, 24-25), and he relied on
Anne Darnell, a qualified vocational expert, for vocational expertise. (Tr. at 53-59.)
Second, with regard to Dr. Haney’s opinion concerning Plaintiff’s
psychological limitations, the doctor did not assess any specific functional, workrelated limitations, but merely concluded that Plaintiff’s “ability to function in
most jobs appeared moderately to severely impaired.” (Tr. at 257.) Whether a
claimant is disabled or unable to work is not a medical opinion but is an issue
reserved to the Commissioner as an administrative finding. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(d)(1). The Court is interested in the doctor’s evaluations of the claimant’s
“condition and the medical consequences thereof, not their opinions of the legal
consequences of his [or her] condition.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440
(11th Cir. 1997). Because Dr. Haney’s opinion regarding Ms. Teague’s ability to
function in most jobs was a determination reserved for the ALJ, the ALJ properly
gave this statement of Dr. Haney’s “little weight”, and instead relied on the RFC
assessment completed by the state agency psychologist, Dr. Dobbs. (Tr. at 26.) In
contrast to Dr. Haney’s conclusory statement, Dr. Dobbs, a psychologist who
reviewed a majority of the medical evidence of record, identified specific, mental
limitations supported by the record. (Tr. at 274.) Consistent with the ALJ’s RFC
finding, Dr. Dobbs opined Plaintiff (1) was able to understand and remember
simple and detailed but not complex instructions; (2) could sustain attention and
concentration for two-hour periods to complete simple tasks during a regular
workday at an acceptable pace and attendance schedule; (3) had no significant
problems in social interaction; and (4) had no significant problems adapting within
a work setting. (Id.) The ALJ appropriately accorded Dr. Haney’s opinion “little
weight” (Tr. 25), and instead gave great weight to Dr. Dobbs’ opinion. (Tr. at 26).
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision to give these determinations
weight, because Dr. Dobbs reviewed the majority of the medical evidence on the
record and identified specific limitations supported by the record. (Tr. at 274.)
Third, the ALJ correctly noted that Dr. Haney’s opinion lacked support in
the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(3). Dr. Haney’s own report failed to
support his extreme opinion. (Tr. at 256-57.) Dr. Haney observed Plaintiff was
polite and cooperative, had an intact recent and remote memory, and despite a
“somewhat” anxious and sad mood, exhibited logical and goal-directed
conversation. (Tr. at 256.) Although Dr. Haney believed Plaintiff was moderately
to severely limited in her ability to work, the ALJ noted Plaintiff had no psychiatric
hospitalizations or outpatient mental health treatment and never sought treatment
from a mental health specialist. (Tr. at 25-26, 156, 256.) Further, the ALJ observed
that no treating source opined that Plaintiff was disabled. (Tr. at 26.) Although
Plaintiff obtained medications from her primary care physician and was diagnosed
with panic disorder, she did not consistently report mental health problems such as
anxiety attacks or depression, and her treating physicians did not indicate any
significant mental health limitations. (Tr. at 26, 235-36, 290-91, 293, 295-96, 30306, 314-20, 323.) These records better support the opinion of Dr. Dobbs, who
indicated mental restrictions that would not preclude Plaintiff’s performance of
other work in the national economy.
Additionally, Plaintiff’s own statements about her limitations similarly
support Dr. Dobbs’ opinion over Dr. Haney’s. Plaintiff reported no problems with
concentration, memory, understanding, following instructions, or getting along
with others, including authority figures. (Tr. at 182-83). Indeed, Plaintiff reported
she can pay attention as “long as needed” and has no problems reading. (Tr. at
182). Plaintiff cares for her children and gets them ready for school (tr. at 157-58,
177-78), shops for groceries (tr. at 160, 180), and pays bills and handles money. (Tr.
at 160, 180).
Accordingly, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision to accord
greater weight to Dr. Dobbs’ opinion than to Dr. Haney’s. The ALJ properly
disregarded Dr. Haney’s conclusion regarding Ms. Teague’s ability to work, and
instead made his decision after assessing all of the facts on the record. The ALJ did
not discount all of Dr. Haney’s findings, and instead only fully disregarded Dr.
Haney’s opinion regarding Ms. Teague’s ability to function in most jobs. (Tr. at
B. Duty to Further Develop the Record
Ms. Teague further contends that the ALJ erred in failing to further develop
the record pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.927. Ms. Teague argues that the ALJ could
have re-contacted Dr. Haney to seek clarification of his opinion pursuant to 20
C.F.R. § 416.912(e)(1). (Doc. 11 at 9.)
Although social security hearings are inquisitorial, not adversarial in nature,
claimants must establish they are eligible for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a),
(c); Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007). The ALJ
has a duty to develop the record where appropriate but need not engage in further
development where the record contains sufficient evidence for the judge to make
an informed decision. Id. In keeping with this theme, the regulations provide that if
a consultative examination report is inadequate or incomplete, the agency will recontact a medical source who performed the consultative examination and ask for
the missing information or preparation of a revised report. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.919p. Importantly, however, the regulation does not state that the agency will
re-contact a consultative examiner simply because the examiner’s report is
inconsistent with other evidence in the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.919p. Instead,
the regulations provide “[i]f any of the evidence in your case record, including any
medical opinion(s), is inconsistent, we will weigh the relevant evidence and see
whether we can determine whether you are disabled based on the evidence we
have.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920b(b). If a consultative examination report does not
include a statement about what a claimant can still do despite the impairments,
“the absence of such a statement . . . will not make the report incomplete.” Id. §
Here, there was sufficient evidence on the record for the ALJ to make a
determination and no additional duty to develop the record by re-contacting Dr.
Haney existed. See Robinson v. Astrue, 265 F. App’x 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010)
(rejecting the claimant’s argument that the ALJ erred by not re-contacting her
doctors where there was already sufficient information for determining the
claimant’s impairments, RFC, and ability to work); Gallina v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
202 F. App’x 387 (11th Cir. 2006) (finding that the ALJ does not err unless the
development of the record results in evidentiary gaps which result in unfairness and
clear prejudice). There was a significant amount of information on the record
regarding Ms. Teague’s mental ailments, and there are no evidentiary gaps in the
record which result in unfairness and clear prejudice against Ms. Teague. For
example, the ALJ had the well-supported opinion of Dr. Dobbs, who provided a
clear assessment of Plaintiff’s mental limitations. (Tr. at 274.)
While Ms. Teague alleges that there is an “inconsistency” in the record
which must be resolved pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(e)(1), no such
inconsistency exists. Dr. Haney’s determination regarding Ms. Teague’s capacity
to work, which was an impermissible legal conclusion reserved for the
Commissioner, is the only “inconsistency” on the record. The ALJ has no duty to
further clarify an opinion such as Dr. Haney’s that bears no legal significance.
Instead, because the record was sufficient and shows no clear prejudice, the ALJ
had no duty to develop the record further.
C. Hypothetical Posed to the Vocational Expert
Ms. Teague argues in passing that the ALJ’s hypothetical to the vocational
expert (“VE”) was incomplete because the hypothetical did not include sufficient
information about her mental abilities. (Doc. 11 at 7.) Ms. Teague takes issue with
the fact that the ALJ’s hypothetical to the VE does not identify any of the possible
limitations listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(c) except social functioning in the
context of interaction with the public. (Id.) Section 404.1545(c) describes how the
agency assesses a claimant’s mental abilities in assessing one’s RFC, and provides,
“A limited ability to carry out certain mental activities, such as limitations on
understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions, and in responding
appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and work pressures in a work setting, may
reduce your ability to do past work and other work.” Id. Plaintiff’s contention is
unfounded, as the hypothetical question that the ALJ posed to the VE accurately
portrayed Ms. Teague’s RFC and included her relevant conditions and limitations.
As noted previously, the fifth step of the Commissioner’s 20 C.F.R. §
416.912(a) evaluation process requires that the ALJ determine whether the
claimant has the ability to adjust to other work in the national economy. There are
two avenues by which the ALJ may make this determination; either by applying the
Medical Vocational Guidelines or by using a VE. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1239-1240 (11th Cir. 2004). VE testimony is the preferred method for
introducing independent evidence of the existence of jobs in the national economy
that the claimant can perform. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir.
2002). “In order for a vocational expert’s testimony to constitute substantial
evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question which comprises all of the
claimant’s impairments.” Id. While this is the case, an ALJ is “not required to
include findings in the hypothetical that the ALJ [has] properly rejected as
unsupported.” Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1161.
With regard to Plaintiff’s mental limitations, the ALJ’s RFC assessment
restricted Plaintiff to only occasional interaction with the public.
foregoing precedent, the ALJ did not err in not including more restrictive mental
limitations because the medical evidence of record did not support them. As noted
previously, the ALJ did not err in giving little weight to Dr. Haney’s opinion, and
the well-supported opinion of Dr. Dobbs supported the ALJ’s assessment of
Plaintiff’s mental limitations. An ALJ may reject the opinion of any physician
when the record supports a contrary conclusion, and the resolution of conflicting
evidence is the function of the ALJ, not the Court. Sryock, 764 F.2d at 835; Graham
v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986). When the ALJ poses a hypothetical
consistent with an RFC that is supported by substantial evidence, the ALJ does not
err in posing that hypothetical. Bouie v. Astrue, 226 F. App’x 892, 895 (11th Cir.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Ms.
Teague’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
DONE and ORDERED on March 24, 2015.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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