Claypool v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 9/1/17. (MRR, )
2017 Sep-01 PM 03:52
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
EDWINA MAE CLAYPOOL,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1
Acting Commissioner of
) Case No. 5:16-cv-00661-SGC
The plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). The plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted
her administrative remedies, and the case is therefore ripe for review pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
At the time she applied for benefits, December 7, 2012 (R. 99), the plaintiff
was fifty-one years old (R. 54). She is a high school graduate with past relevant
Nancy A. Berryhill became Acting Commissioner of Social Security on January 23, 2017. See
https://www.ssa.gov. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 25(d), Nancy A. Berryhill is substituted as the
defendant in this action.
The parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
work as a unit clerk and a receptionist. (R. 47, 170). She claimed a disability
onset date of March 13, 2012, due to epilepsy, spondylolisthesis, memory loss,
cognitive loss, sleep apnea, and depression. (R. 169-70). After the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) denied her application (R. 68), the plaintiff requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on October
28, 2014. (R. 34). After the hearing, the ALJ found the plaintiff did not have an
impairment or a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equivalent to,
one listed in the Listings of Impairments. (R. 20). The ALJ further found the
plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work (R.
21) and that she could return to her past relevant work as a receptionist. (R. 25).
In light of these findings, the ALJ denied the plaintiff’s request for a period of
disability and DIB on January 9, 2015. (Id.).
The plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision (R.
2), which the Appeals Council denied. (R. 3). Therefore, the ALJ’s decision is the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (Id.) The plaintiff then
filed the appeal in this court on April 25, 2016, seeking reversal and remand of the
Commissioner’s decision. (Doc. 1; Doc. 13 at 12).
The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential
evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability and
DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2). First, the Commissioner must determine
whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If the claimant is engaged in substantial
gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled,
regardless of the claimant’s medical condition or her age, education, and work
experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial
gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant
suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly
limit the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c). The burden is on the claimant to “provide medical
evidence showing ... impairment(s)” and the severity of them during the time the
claimant alleges disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(c). An impairment is “severe” if
it “significantly limits [a] claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.” Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997). “An
impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which
has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to
interfere with the individual’s ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or
work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984).
If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must then
determine whether the claimant’s impairment meets the duration requirement and
whether it is equivalent to any one of the listed impairments.
20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); § 404.1525; § 404.1526. Listed impairments are so
severe that they prevent an individual from performing substantial gainful activity.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (The
Listings). If the claimant’s impairment meets or equals a Listing, the
Commissioner must find the claimant disabled, regardless of the claimant’s age,
education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment does
not meet or equal the criteria of any Listing, the claimant must prove that her
impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §
At step four, the Commissioner “will first compare [the Commission’s]
assessment of [the claimant’s] residual functional capacity [“RFC”] with the
physical and mental demands of [the claimant’s] past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1560(b). If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the
Commissioner will find she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3). If the
claimant establishes that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, the
Commissioner must show that the claimant—in light of her RFC, age, education,
and work experience—is capable of performing other work that exists in
substantial numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(1). If the
claimant is not capable of performing such other work, the Commissioner must
find the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
Applying these steps, the ALJ determined the plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful employment since her alleged onset date. (R. 18). At step two,
the ALJ considered only the plaintiff’s degenerative disc disease to be a severe
impairment, finding the plaintiff’s seizure disorder, obstructive sleep apnea,
obesity, and depression to be non-severe because they did not significantly affect
the plaintiff’s ability to do work. (R. 18-19). Next, the ALJ found the plaintiff did
not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically
equaled any Listing. (R. 20). The ALJ determined the plaintiff had the RFC to
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), including the
ability to carry and lift up to ten pounds; stand and/or walk four of eight hours;
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel,
and crawl; occasionally push and pull with her legs; avoid concentrated exposure
to temperature extremes and vibrations; and avoid dangerous machinery,
unprotected heights, and large bodies of water. (R. 21). At step four, considering
this RFC, the ALJ determined the plaintiff court return to her past relevant work as
a receptionist. (R. 25).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court is
limited to an inquiry into whether substantial evidence exists to support the
findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were
applied. Stone v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 544 Fed. App’x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013)
(citing Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)).
The court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner but reviews
questions of law de novo. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260
(11th Cir. 2007). The court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence,
or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner],” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395
F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005), rather it must “scrutinize the record as a whole
to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial
evidence.” Henry v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015).
“The Commissioner’s factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial
Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002).
“Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but rather such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir.2005).
The plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of
the plaintiff’s complaints of back pain consistent with the Eleventh Circuit pain
standard and that the ALJ failed to properly articulate good cause to accord less
than controlling weight to the opinion of the plaintiff’s treating physician. (Doc.
13 at 4, 9).
A. Failure to Apply the Pain Standard Properly
In this Circuit, when a claimant attempts to establish disability through her
own testimony of pain and other subjective symptoms, a three-part “pain standard”
applies. Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225. 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.
Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir.
An ALJ may discredit a claimant’s subjective testimony of pain and other
symptoms if she articulates explicit and adequate reasons for doing so. Wilson,
284 F.3d at 1225. 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 v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995)).
When evaluating whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ’s credibility
determination, “[t]he question is not ... whether [the] ALJ could have reasonably
credited [the claimant’s] testimony, but whether the ALJ was clearly wrong to
discredit it.” Werner v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 421 Fed. App’x 935, 939 (11th Cir.
2011). Succinctly stated, this court may not consider whether or not it would make
the same decision as the ALJ, but rather must look to whether “‘the record as a
whole’ shows the ALJ’s decision is ‘reasonable and supported by substantial
evidence.’” Wright v. Barnhart, 153 Fed. App’x 678, 683 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting
Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Here, the plaintiff testified that she suffers from low back pain in the
morning, leg weakness, and nerve pain. (R. 39). The ALJ noted that, despite the
plaintiff’s testimony concerning disabling back pain, the plaintiff cooked and did
housework; had a normal gait, range of motion, and muscle strength; and reported
to doctors that her pain was controlled with medication. (R. 22-23). Furthermore,
the plaintiff reported she could drive, cook meals, go grocery shopping, take care
of pets, and see to her own needs. (R. 23, 40, 45, 191, 193). Although the plaintiff
testified she could sit for thirty minutes at a time, she also stated she could drive a
car for an hour before she would need to stop. (R. 44, 45). She knit as a hobby
and could walk twenty minutes at a time. (R. 45). Clearly, the decision of the ALJ
regarding the severity of the plaintiff’s pain is supported by substantial evidence.
Without “reweigh[ing] the evidence, or substitute[ing] [its] judgment for that of the
[Commissioner],” Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210, this court cannot find that the ALJ
failed to properly apply the severity prong of the Eleventh Circuit pain standard.
See also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986) (“The weighing
of evidence is a function of the factfinder, not of the district court.”).
B. Rejection of a Treating Physician’s Opinion
The plaintiff next contends the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of Dr.
Larry Parker, one of the plaintiff’s treating physicians. (Doc. 13 at 9-11). The
plaintiff is correct that the opinion of a treating physician is entitled to great weight
absent “good cause” to the contrary. “‘Good cause’ exists when the: (1) treating
physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a
contrary finding; or (3) treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent
with the doctor’s own medical records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1241
(11th Cir. 2004).
Here, the ALJ rejected the Medical Source Opinion completed by Dr. Parker
(R. 545-46), noting it was not well supported by the plaintiff’s treatment records or
activities of daily living.
In December 2012, after the removal of
hardware from her back, the plaintiff was noted to have “some residual back pain
but overall is better” and had 5/5 motor strength.3 (R. 353). The plaintiff’s treating
neurologist noted later that month that the plaintiff was “doing well.” (R. 360). In
February 2013, the plaintiff reported to her psychiatrist that her pain issues had
improved following her surgery. (R. 363). At a follow up visit in March 2013, Dr.
Parker noted that the plaintiff was “overall well” with back pain in the morning,
The plaintiff was instructed to continue on a self-directed exercise program (R. 353) although
she testified at her hearing that she was never told to do exercises at home. (R. 39). Similarly,
the plaintiff testified that her doctors never told her to lose weight (R. 40); however, her medical
records contain doctors’ encouragements to do just that (R. 361, 441).
5/5 motor strength, and good range of motion. (R. 400). Again in June 2013, Dr.
Parker found that the plaintiff was “doing well,” with subjective back pain but 5/5
motor strength and good range of motion.
He noted the plaintiff
“managed well” on her pain medication and therefore continued her prescriptions.
In January 2014 the plaintiff was seen for pain management and reported
aching pain in her low back at a current severity of a 5/10 but stated at its worst her
pain was an 8/10. (R. 449-50). The plaintiff was prescribed pain medication and
steroidal shots in her spine. (R. 452-454).
At her therapy session in February
2014, the plaintiff reported her back was “feeling better.” (R. 515). At her April
2014 visit, the plaintiff was noted to have had a “30-40% improvement,” and
although her pain was still present, it was not as intense or severe. (R. 472). At a
follow up visit in June 2014, the plaintiff was “not in pain at this moment.” (R.
463, 477). She further reported that the steroidal shots did not help but Lyrica was
really helping and asked if she could increase the dosage. (R. 467).
With this back drop, Dr. Parker completed a Medical Source Opinion
(Physical) in which he opined the plaintiff could walk less than fifteen minutes at a
time, sit for less than one hour at a time, and stand less than thirty minutes at a
time. (R. 545). However, Dr. Parker did not state any clinical basis for this
assessment, and the limitations proffered by him are more restrictive than what the
plaintiff herself testified at her hearing she could do. Dr. Parker further stated the
plaintiff could lift five pounds, but carry ten pounds constantly, and occasionally
lift and carry twenty pounds. (Id.). This is within the limitations of the ALJ’s RFC
and within the limitations the ALJ considered in finding the plaintiff not disabled.
Moreover, the ALJ noted the plaintiff’s self-reported activities were not consistent
with Dr. Parker’s opinion concerning the plaintiff being limited to sitting, standing,
and walking less than six hours in an eight hour work day. (R. 24). Rather than
“playing doctor,” as the plaintiff accuses the ALJ (Doc. 13 at 11), the ALJ properly
carried out her role as an adjudicator responsible for determining the plaintiff’s
RFC. See Castle v. Colvin, 557 Fed. App’x 849, 853 (11th Cir. 2014).
For the reasons set forth above, the court finds the decision of the
Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and due to be affirmed. An
order in accordance will be entered contemporaneously with this Memorandum
DONE this 1st day of September, 2017.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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