White v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION Signed by Magistrate Judge John E Ott on 6/13/18. (SAC )
2018 Jun-13 PM 03:48
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MICHAEL ANGELO WHITE,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 5:17-cv-00298-JEO
Plaintiff Michael Angelo White brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social
Security (“Commissioner”) denying him supplemental security income (“SSI”)
benefits. (Doc. 1).1 The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States
Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court’s general order of reference. The parties
have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. See
28 U.S.C. § 636(c), FED. R. CIV. P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the
relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner’s decision is due to be
References herein to “Doc(s). __” are to the document numbers assigned by the Clerk of
the Court to the pleadings, motions, and other materials in the court file, as reflected on the
docket sheet in the court’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed his application for SSI benefits in October 2013, alleging he
became disabled beginning October 8, 2013. It was initially denied by an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff’s
request for review. (R. 1).2
Plaintiff was 43 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision. (R. 121). He
completed the eleventh grade. He previously worked as a dishwasher, poultry
eviscerator, mason’s helper, and landscape laborer. (R. 17, 31, 36-39, 52). He
alleges disability due to digestive track problems. (R. 146).
Following Plaintiff’s hearing, the ALJ found that he had the medically
determinable severe impairment of gastrointestinal hemorrhage. (R. 13). He also
found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments
that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (R. at 14). He further
found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
medium work with limitations. (R. 15). He determined that Plaintiff could
perform his past work as a dishwasher and poultry eviserator, as well as other jobs
References herein to “R. __” are to the administrative record found at Docs. 7-1 through
7-12 in the court’s record.
in the national economy. (R. 17). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled. (R. 18).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is narrowly
circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the
Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper
legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S. Ct.
1420, 1422 (1971); Mitchell v. Comm’r Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir.
2015; Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The 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.
The 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. See Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991). The court must affirm the
ALJ’s decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if other evidence
preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings. See Crawford v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894
F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.1990)).
IV. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for benefits a claimant must show the inability to engage in “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 12 months.” 42
U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that
results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are
demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).
Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five
step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must
determine in sequence:
whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful
activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable physical or mental
impairment; (3) has such an impairment that meets or equals a Listing
and meets the duration requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant
work, in light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an
adjustment to other work, in light of his residual functional capacity,
age, education, and work experience.
Evans v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App’x 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014).3 The
plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir.
2005); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a). The applicable “regulations place a very
heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an
inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in that he failed to include any analysis of
Plaintiff’s primary disabling symptom – “constant diarrhea requiring one or more
trips to the restroom per hour.” (Doc. 9 at 3 (citing R. 40-41)). As part of this
claim, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to engage in the required analysis and
simply relied on a boilerplate disclaimer. (Id. at 4 (citing R. 15)). The
Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff’s complaints of
Unpublished opinions of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals are not considered
binding precedent; however, they may be cited as persuasive authority. 11th Cir. R. 36-2.
disabling symptoms and that substantial evidence supports his conclusion that
Plaintiff is not disabled. (Doc. 10 at 4-9).
As noted above, Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he is disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 419.912(a) & (c);
Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001).
Specifically, Plaintiff must provide evidence of an underlying medical condition
and either objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged
symptoms or that the medical condition could be reasonably expected to give rise
to the alleged symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § 419.929; Dyer v. Barnhart, 359 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005); Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225-26; Edwards v. Sullivan,
937 F.2d 580, 584 (11th Cir. 1991). In analyzing the evidence, the focus is on
how an impairment affects Plaintiff’s ability to work, and not on the impairment
itself. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(1); McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1547
(11th Cir. 1986) (severity of impairments must be measured in terms of their effect
on the ability to work, not from purely medical standards of bodily perfection or
In addressing Plaintiff’s subjective description of pain and symptoms, the
law is clear:
In order to establish a disability based on testimony of pain and other
symptoms, the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test
showing: (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2)
either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the
alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition
can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain. See Holt
v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). If the ALJ
discredits subjective testimony, he must articulate explicit and
adequate reasons for doing so. See Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007,
1011 (11th Cir. 1987). Failure to articulate the reasons for
discrediting subjective testimony requires, as a matter of law, that the
testimony be accepted as true. See Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541,
1545 (11th Cir. 1988).
Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929. In
determining 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 F. App’x 935, 939 (11th Cir.
When evaluating a claimant’s statements regarding the intensity,
persistence, or limiting effects of his symptoms, the ALJ considers all the evidence
– objective and subjective. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(2). A plaintiff cannot
simply allege disabling symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(a) (“statements about
your pain and other symptoms will not alone establish that you are disabled”).
The ALJ may consider the nature of a claimant’s symptoms, the effectiveness of
medication, a claimant’s method of treatment, a claimant’s activities, measures a
claimant takes to relieve symptoms, and any conflicts between a claimant’s
statements and the rest of the evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(3), (4). The
ALJ is not required explicitly to conduct a symptom analysis, but the reasons for
his or her findings must be clear enough that they are obvious to a reviewing
court. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995). “A clearly
articulated credibility finding with substantial supporting evidence in the record
will not be disturbed by a reviewing court.” Id. (citation omitted).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to produce his alleged symptoms, but that Plaintiff’s
statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects were not
credible to the extent they conflicted with his RFC for a modified range of
medium work. (R. 16). The court agrees and the record supports this conclusion.
With regard to Plaintiff’s restriction requiring “constant bathroom breaks,”
the evidence shows that Plaintiff had abdominal surgery for a gunshot wound in
1999. (R. 13, 319). In September 2013, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for
abdominal pain and rectal bleeding. His medical history, which was recorded
upon admission, reflects the following:
He has had multiple abdominal surgeries related to [his gunshot
wound] with bowel resections and appears to have a postoperative
complication 3 years later that required re-exploration and a
subsequent bowel resection as well. Since that time he has had
chronic abdominal pain over the last 15 years. He has also noted
intermittent drainage from a small area around his umbilicus. This
has been present for approximately the last 10 years. Over the last
month or two he has had lower gastrointestinal bleeding and clot with
what are otherwise are normal stool....
(R. 222). He was diagnosed with chronic enterocutaneous fistula or colon
cutaneous fistula. (R. 223). He remained in the hospital for treatment until his
pain was “well-controlled.” (R. 13). His pain and bleeding returned. He was
admitted to the hospital on October 22, 2013. Doctors performed a small bowel
resection with anastomosis, extensive lysis of adhesions and cholecystectomy, and
an exploratory laparotomy with small bowel resection and closure of
enterocutaneous fistula. (R. 14, 319). He was discharged on October 28, 2013,
after his bowel function returned, he was on no antibiotics, and he was tolerating a
regular diet. (R. 314). During his November 5, 2013 doctor’s visit for abdominal
pain, he denied any diarrhea. (R. 281-82).
On November 23, 2014, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for abdominal
pain. (R. 326). He was diagnosed with a small bowel obstruction. (R. 327). He
remained in the hospital until December 12, 2014, when he was cleared for release
after he tolerated food properly, had bowel movements, and was able to ambulate
under his own strength. (R. 329). This was Plaintiff’s last reported medical
treatment prior to his hearing on July 14, 2015. (R. 23).
During the hearing, Plaintiff stated that he was unable to work because of
gastrointestinal problems including constant stomach pain and a frequent need to
use the bathroom. (R. 40). He reported needing to use the bathroom three to four
times during an hour. (Id.) He also stated that if he sits too long, his discharge
includes blood. (Id.) He asserted that he cannot concentrate due to the stomach
pain and the need to go “run to the bathroom.” (Id.) He stated that in the couple
of hours he was present for the hearing, he had to go to the bathroom about eight
times. (R. 41). Lastly, he stated that his pain medication had run out. (R. 45).
The ALJ found Plaintiff’s statements to be partially credible, questioning
the severity and functional restrictions of Plaintiff’s impairment. (R. 16).
Specifically, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff did well after his surgeries, was not
taking any medication, and had received no treatment subsequent to his last
hospitalization – a period of about seven months. (Id.) The ALJ stated that this
evidence negated the severity of Plaintiff’s condition. (Id.) The ALJ further
Now, the claimant also testified that he does not have the income to
receive treatment and that his last surgeries were emergencies and he
had to have them. However, the fact that the claimant has not
reported to the emergency room and there has not had to be any
further emergency treatment actually shows that the claimant’s
condition is somewhat under control. His testimony shows at the
very least that the severity of his symptoms is not so severe as to
warrant medical treatment.
The question for this court is whether the ALJ adequately has explained his
reasoning and whether it is supported by substantial evidence. See Dyer v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s
decision “does not engage in any further analysis beyond [a] boilerplate
disclaimer,” his reasoning is conclusory, and he failed to adequately consider that
Plaintiff’s lack of treatment is due to his economic situation and use of the “more
reasonable option to take hourly bathroom breaks (at no cost).” (Doc. 9 at 3-4
and Doc. 11 at 1). The court does not agree. The ALJ adequately explained his
reasons for finding that Plaintiff’s testimony regarding his pain and limitations
was only partially credible, and his reasoning is supported by the record. It shows
that Plaintiff’s surgeries effectively treated his flare-ups and they have been
followed by lengthy periods where he needed no additional hospitalization. (R.
16, 282-85, 314). By way of example, his November 2013 examination notes
show he was well-developed and well-nourished, and he denied diarrhea,
constipation, bloody/black stools, hemorrhoids, and hepatitis. (R. 16, 282). He
also received no emergency room or surgical treatment from November 2013 to
November 2014 and from December 2014 through the hearing date. (R. 16, 48,
281-84, 326). Additionally, his daily activities tend to support the ALJ’s
determination. Plaintiff reported caring for his children; some shopping for food,
clothes, and diapers; some housework; independently handling his personal care
needs; riding in a car; going out alone; socializing with others; and walking less
than half a mile. (R. 15, 158-73). Finally, there is no medical evidence that
Plaintiff is disabled or has limitations in excess of the RFC determined by the
ALJ. (R. 16).
In sum, the court cannot find under the record that Plaintiff is entitled to any
relief. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision.
For the reasons set forth above, the undersigned concludes that the decision
of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed. An appropriate order will be entered
DONE, this the 13th day of June, 2018.
JOHN E. OTT
Chief United States Magistrate Judge
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