Via v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge John H England, III on 9/24/2015. (KEK)
2015 Sep-24 PM 02:37
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DEBRA L. VIA,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Case Number: 5:14-cv-01094-JHE
MEMORANDUM OPINION 1
Plaintiff Debra L. Via (“Via”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of
the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for a period of disability, disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). 2 (Doc. 1). Via timely
pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for
the reasons stated below, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
I. Factual and Procedural History
Via was a fifty-eight year old female at the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ”) decision. (Tr. 24). Via completed high school and is able to communicate in English.
(Tr. 24). Via previously worked as a home healthcare aid and a lunchroom attendant. (Tr. 23).
In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 73, the parties have voluntarily consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge
conduct any and all proceedings, including trial and the entry of final judgment. (Doc. 14).
Although Via apparently filed an application for Supplemental Security Income, (see tr.
17), it is not in the record.
Via filed her applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on February 15, 2011
and July 27, 2012, alleging an initial onset date of July 13, 2010. (Tr. 17). The Commissioner
initially denied Via’s application, and Via requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 62-63). After
a hearing, the ALJ denied Via’s claim on September 27, 2012. (Tr. 25). Via sought review by
the Appeals Council, but it declined her request on February 26, 2014. (Tr. 1-4). On that date,
the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On June 10, 2014, Via
initiated this action. (See doc. 1).
II. Standard of Review 3
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.”
This Court must uphold factual findings 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,
In general, the legal standards applied are the same 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 for statutes or regulations found in
quoted court decisions.
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 the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 114546 (11th Cir. 1991).
III. 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 entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or
mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory 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 sequence:
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 the formerly applicable C.F.R.
The “Regulations” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499.
section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999);
accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “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 such work exists in the national economy in significant
IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge
After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation
process, the ALJ made the following findings:
At Step One, the ALJ found Via last met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act on December 31, 2014, and that Via did not engage in substantial gainful activity
from the alleged onset date of July 13, 2010. 5 (Tr. 19). At Step Two, the ALJ found Via has the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease status post-surgery and scleroderma.
(Tr. 20). At Step Three, the ALJ found Via does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 20).
Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Via’s residual functioning capacity
(“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined Via has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20
C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with specified limitations.
The ALJ found that Via worked after the alleged disability onset date, but this work
activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 19).
limitations are that she can only perform occasional crouching, stooping, and operation of foot
controls with no ladders, and frequent, but not constant, use of the bilateral upper extremities.
At Step Four, the ALJ determined, through the date last insured, Via is unable to perform
any past relevant work. (Tr. 23). At Step Five, the ALJ determined, based on Via’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy
Via could perform. (Tr. 24). Therefore, the ALJ determined Via has not been under a disability,
as defined in the Social Security Act, and denied Via’s claim. (Tr. 24-25).
Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his 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)).
The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for
that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination Via failed to demonstrate a
disability, and the ALJ applied the proper standards to reach this conclusion. Via challenges the
ALJ’s decision on two specific grounds: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of
her testimony of disabling symptoms consistent with the Eleventh Circuit pain standard; and (2)
the ALJ failed to properly articulate good cause for according less weight to the opinion of her
treating physician. (Doc. 12 at 4-12). Neither of these arguments has merit.
A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Credibility of Via’s Testimony of Disabling
Symptoms Consistent with the Eleventh Circuit Pain Standard
Via contends the ALJ did not properly assess her credibility consistent with the Eleventh
Circuit Pain Standard, but instead chose select notations to support her findings and ignored the
medical record as a whole. (Doc. 12 at 4-9). The Eleventh Circuit “has established a three part
‘pain standard’ that applies when a claimant attempts to establish disability through his or her
own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms. The pain standard requires (1) evidence of
an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the
severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined
medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the
alleged pain.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). Subjective testimony
supported by medical evidence satisfying the standard is sufficient to support a finding of
disability. Id. However, the ALJ may still make a credibility determination on the claimant’s
statements about the intensity and effect of that pain. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 156162 (11th Cir. 1995); Hogard v. Sullivan, 733 F. Supp. 1465, 1469 (M.D. Fla. 1990). The ALJ’s
adverse credibility determination must be supported by “explicit and adequate reasons,” Holt,
921 F.2d at 1223, and substantial evidence, see Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62. An ALJ’s clearly
articulated credibility determination will not be disturbed if supported by substantial evidence.
Petteway v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 353 Fed. App’x. 287, 288 (11th Cir. 2009).
Here, the ALJ found Via’s “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the alleged symptoms,” thus satisfying the initial requirements of the pain
Nevertheless, the ALJ then found that Via’s “statements concerning
intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they
are inconsistent with the  residual functioning capacity assessment.” (Id.). The ALJ’s finding
that Via’s testimony was “less than credible,” (tr. 23), is supported by substantial evidence and
she articulated adequate reasons for discrediting Via’s subjective complaints.
The ALJ specifically referenced treating notes indicating Via consistently complained of
back pain. (Tr. 21). The ALJ further acknowledged the findings in the September 9, 2010
lumbar MRI, the December 14, 2010 back surgery, and the findings of the February 2011 lumbar
MRI corroborated Via’s complaints of back pain. (Tr. 21, 160, 305, 307-08). The ALJ then
partially credited Via’s complaints concerning her ability to lift, crouch, stoop, and operate foot
controls after considering the findings of the April 21, 2011 consultative examination. (tr. 22,
339-41). The ALJ properly concluded that during the consultative examination, Via had only a
mildly antalgic gait, reduced strength in her lower extremities, and pain upon range of motion in
the lumbar spine. (Tr. 22, 339-41). The ALJ properly accommodated these restrictions by
limited Via to occasional crouching, stooping, operating foot controls, and never climbing
ladders. (Tr. 20, 22).
The ALJ also credited Via’s complaints of fingertip pain, decreased grip strength, and
increased hand cramping from scleroderma. (Tr. 22). The ALJ said she considered the March 8,
2010 treatment note wherein laboratory tests confirmed scleroderma. (Tr. 22, 145-48). Because
of this finding, the ALJ limited Via to light work but found she could not constantly use her
upper extremities. (Tr. 22).
The ALJ then set out the inconsistent evidence that detracted from Via’s allegations she
was further limited. (Tr. 22-23). Relating to her scleroderma, the ALJ explained that the March
17, 2011 nerve conduction study returned normal. (Tr. 22, 329-31). Additionally, the ALJ
considered the March 3, 2011 treatment note from Dr. Martin Jones, Via’s treating surgeon,
showing that Via did not have any significant nerve root compression. (Tr. 22, 300). Moreover,
an April 21, 2011 consultative examination by Dr. Marlin Gill revealed Via had normal and
symmetrical appearing upper extremities, full range of motion of her joints, normal use of her
hands and arms, the ability to perform a full squat and arise, and the ability to heel-toe walk. (Tr.
The ALJ also addressed Via’s allegations concerning her treatment regime. (Tr. 22).
The ALJ concluded that the medical evidence did not corroborate Via’s allegation that she needs
to lie down with her feet elevated every day. (Tr. 22, 45).
The ALJ explained, the February
2011 lumbar MRI showed Via had only very mild left lateral recess encroachment. (Tr. 22,
307). Similarly, the ALJ noted that Via does not allege, and the medical record does not show,
any side effects from medication. (Tr. 22). Finally, the ALJ acknowledged that Via also said,
although she has received epidural steroid injections, she uses heating pads and ice packs to
alleviate her pain. (Tr. 22, 45).
The ALJ properly supported her conclusion that Via’s
medication regiment and treatment history do not support the presence of impairments that
further limit her.
As for Via’s daily activities, the ALJ compared Via’s allegations throughout the record.
(Tr. 22). The ALJ noted that, although Via claimed to perform only limited activities of cooking
and shopping, her daily activities could not be objectively verified and that it was difficult to
attribute a degree of limitation to her medical condition in light of the relatively weak medical
evidence and the fact Via worked for a time after her alleged onset date. (Tr. 22, 108). Via’s
ability to work after the alleged onset date provides further evidence undermining her allegations
of disability limitations.
The ALJ considered the medical records and opinions from doctors who treated and
examined Via, the opinion of Via’s therapist, as well as the opinion from the state agency doctor
who reviewed the evidence. (Tr. 22-23). In addition to Dr. Gill’s April 21, 2011 examination,
the ALJ also relied, in part, on the April 26, 2011 state agency consultative report from Dr.
Richard Whitney. (Tr. 23). Dr. Whitney opined Via could occasionally lift twenty pounds and
frequently lift ten pounds, could stand and/or walk about six hours, and had no pushing and
pulling limitations. (Tr. 343). Dr. Whitney also opined Via was limited to occasional postural
activities, except she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Tr. 344). Dr. Whitney
opined Via had no manipulative limitations, but should avoid concentrated exposure to
temperature extremes and avoid all exposure to hazards. (tr. 346). Noting Dr. Whitney was a
consultative examiner, the ALJ proper accorded his opinion some weight. (Tr. 23).
The ALJ also gave some weight to the March 29, 2011 medical source statement from
Marla Hodges, Via’s physical therapist. (Tr. 23, 332-36). According to Hodge, Via can lift
twenty pounds floor to waist. (Tr. 23, 443). The ALJ concluded this opinion was consistent
with the objective medical evidence. (Tr. 23). However, the ALJ found that the MRI findings
and the Social Security Administration’s definition of medium work did not support Hodges’
conclusion that Via could perform at the “medium work classification level.” (Tr. 23, 332).
Based on this evidence, the ALJ properly applied the Eleventh Circuit pain standard and
substantial evidence supports her decision to discredit Via’s subjective testimony of disabling
pain and her RFC assessment. .
B. The ALJ Properly Articulated Good Cause for According Less Weight to the
Opinion of Via’s Treating Physician
Via contends the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because the ALJ failed to
properly articulate good cause for according less weight to the opinion of her treating physician,
Dr. Martin Jones. (Doc. 12 at 10-12). Specifically, Via first points to two of Dr. Jones’ opinions
where he states Via is unable to work. (Doc. 12 at 10, citing tr. 301, 304). On both December
29, 2010 and March 3, 2011, Dr. Jones indicated on Via’s “Treatment/Work Status Form” that
“Patient unable to return to work at this time.” (Tr. 301, 304). Via also points to the portion of
the decision where the ALJ gave only “little weight” to Dr. Jones’ March 3, 2011 opinion finding
Dr. Jones’ “treatment notes fail to support it. (Doc. 12 at 11, citing tr. 23).
As a general rule, the opinion of a treating physician, such as Dr. Jones, “must be given
substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.” Lewis v.
Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). “Good cause” exists when the: (1) treating
physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary
finding; or (3) the treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s
own medical records. Id. When electing to disregard the opinion of a treating physician, the
ALJ must clearly articulate his reasons. Id. However, opinions on whether a claimant is
disabled are “not medical opinions . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved for the
Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case.” 20 C.F.R.
404.1527(d); see SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *2. Opinions on issues reserved for the
Commissioner (e.g., the opinion that a claimant is disabled), even when offered by a treating
source, “are never entitled to controlling weight or given special significance.” SSR 96-5p, 1996
WL 374183, at *2. “Giving controlling weight to such opinions would, in effect, confer upon the
treating source the authority to make the determination or decision about whether an individual is
under a disability, and thus would be an abdication of the Commissioner’s statutory
responsibility to determine whether an individual is disabled.” Id. Thus, although a physician’s
opinion about what a claimant can still do or the claimant’s restrictions are relevant evidence,
such opinions are not determinative because the ALJ has the responsibility of assessing the
claimant’s RFC. See Beegle v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm’r, 482 F. App’x 483 , 486 (11th Cir.
Dr. Jones indicated he believed Via could not return to work “at this time” on July 23,
2010, prior to her surgery, and again on December 29, 2010, immediately after Via’s surgery.
(Tr. 301, 307). Although the ALJ did not specifically reference these opinions, remanding the
case on this ground is not warranted. Whether a claimant can work or is disabled is an issue
reserved to the Commissioner and is not entitled to controlling weight. See SSR 96-5p, 1996
WL 374183, at *2. Furthermore, it is understandable why Dr. Jones would indicate that Via
could not return to work prior to and immediately after surgery. Instead, the ALJ appropriately
evaluated Dr. Jones’ March 3, 2011 opinion and the collective evidence to consider whether the
December 2010 surgery helped to alleviate Via’s symptoms, caused additional symptoms, and/or
enabled her to return to work. (Tr. 23). The ALJ expressly disagreed with Dr. Jones’ March 3,
2011 opinion Via could not return to work at that time. (Tr. 23). The ALJ explained that Dr.
Jones’ treatment notes failed to support his opinion. (Tr. 23, 300). In doing to, the ALJ cited
results from the February 2011 MRI showing no evidence of nerve root compression and Dr.
Jones’ indication that “everything to me looks ok.” (Tr. 23, 300, 307).
supports the ALJ’s decision to give little weight to Dr. Jones’ March 3, 2011 opinion, and the
ALJ did not err by not specifically referencing Dr. Jones’ opinions on ultimate issues reserved to
For the reasons set forth herein, and upon careful consideration of the administrative
record and memoranda of the parties, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
denying Via’s claim for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI is AFFIRMED and this action
DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
DONE this 24th day of September 2015.
JOHN H. ENGLAND, III
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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