Corley v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 09/14/12. (CVA)
2012 Sep-14 PM 01:38
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
VIRGINIA R. KELLER
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Civil Action Number
Plaintiff Virginia R. Keller Corley (“Corley”) brings this action pursuant to
Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking
review of the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”). This court finds that the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ”) decision - which has become the decision of the Commissioner - is
supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, AFFIRMS the decision denying
I. Procedural History
Corley filed her application for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on
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June 4, 2008, alleging a disability onset date of September 15, 2007, due to
diabetes, asthma, and scoliosis. (R. 109-111, 153). After the SSA denied her
application on September 6, 2008, Corley requested a hearing, (R. 62, 74). At the
time of the hearing on April 22, 2010, Corley was 40 years old, had a high school
diploma, and past relevant work that included semi-skilled, heavy work as a
nursing assistant. (R. 23, 33, 49, 55). Corley has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since June 4, 2008. (R. 18).
The ALJ denied Corley’s claim on June 22, 2010, (R. 25), which became the
final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant
review on July 9, 2011, (R. 1-5). Corley then filed this action pursuant to section
1631 of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Doc. 1.
II. Standard of Review
The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial
evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v.
Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the
correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988);
Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)
and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if
supported by ‘substantial evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
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(11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the
evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must
review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “reasonable
and supported by substantial evidence.” See id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler,
703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a
preponderance of evidence; “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person
would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Martin, 849 F.2d at 1529
(quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by
substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings
even if the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner’s findings.
See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review
of the ALJ’s findings is limited in scope, it notes that the review “does not yield
automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.
III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairments 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
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months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(I). A physical or mental
impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in
whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative
answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps
three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other
than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (citing 20
C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to
prior work the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can
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do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the Five Step sequential analysis, the ALJ determined
initially that Corley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her
alleged onset date and therefore met Step One. (R. 18). Next, the ALJ
acknowledged that Corley’s severe impairments of diabetes, diabetic neuropathy,
chronic diarrhea, depression, anxiety, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
scoliosis, hypoglycemia, arthritis, and hypertension met Step Two. (R. 22). The
ALJ then proceeded to Step Three where he found that Corley “does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of
the listed impairments.” Id. Although the ALJ answered Step Three in the
negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, the ALJ
proceeded to Step Four where he determined that Corley
has the residual functional capacity [RFC] to perform sedentary work
[ ] except that the claimant can only occasionally climb ramps and
stairs; is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; can
only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; should avoid
exposure to extreme heat, unprotected heights, hazardous machinery,
and environmental irritants such as fumes, gas, and dust; and should
be restricted to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work
environment free of fast-paced production requirements and with few,
and only gradually introduced, changes in the workplace.
(R. 19). In light of Corley’s RFC, the ALJ held that Corley was “unable to
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perform any past relevant work.” (R. 23). The ALJ then moved to Step Five
where he considered Corley’s age, education, experience, and RFC, and
determined that “jobs . . . exist in significant numbers in the national economy that
[Corley] can perform.” (R. 24). As a result, the ALJ answered Step Five in the
negative and found that Corley is not disabled. (R. 24-25); see also McDaniel,
800 F.2d at 1030.
Corley asserts that the ALJ committed reversible error by (1) failing to
consider the medical records fully, (2) focusing improperly on Corley’s drug
dependence, and (3) failing to base Corley’s RFC on a medical expert opinion or
medical source opinion. Doc. 8 at 5-9. For the reasons stated below, this court
finds that the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ properly considered Corley’s medical records.
Corley’s contention that the ALJ failed to properly consider all the medical
evidence is related to Corley’s hospital admissions on May 10, 2008, June 15,
2008, April 10, 2009, and October 1, 2009. Doc. 8 at 5-7. A review of the record
shows that on May 10, 2008, Corley visited Walker Baptist Medical Center’s
(“Walker Baptist”) emergency department for “perineal weakness, generalized
weakness, [and] failure to thrive.” (R. 190). The treating physician noted that
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despite a diabetes diagnosis eight years earlier, Corley was not on “any specific
therapy,” “ha[d] not been taking care of herself until recently,” had significant
weight loss (went from 213 pounds to 82 pounds), and experienced diarrhea, some
dysuria, painful bowel movements, high blood sugars, and a non-productive
cough. Id. The physician diagnosed Corley with a urinary tract infection, multiple
carbuncles, oral and vaginal candidiasis, diabetes, elevated bilirubin, diarrhea, and
severe protein calorie malnutrition, and treated her with oral diabetes medication,
IV antibiotics, IV Diflucan (to treat candidiasis), and nutritional supplements. (R.
The full extent of Corley’s contention regarding this hospitalization is that
the ALJ erred by reporting “only the diagnoses of admission,” doc. 8 at 5, i.e.
urinary tract infection and skin abscesses, and that the ALJ failed to consider the
discharge diagnoses. The record belies Corely’s contention. Specifically, the
ALJ outlined Corley’s pre-admission history (i.e. that Corley sought treatment for
a urinary tract infection, multiple skin abscesses, and diabetes at the Hope Clinic
one month earlier) and noted that Corley was discharged with “diagnoses of
hyponatremia, secondary to hyperglycemia; diabetes mellitus type 2; significantly
uncontrolled urinary tract infection; pneumonia; skin abscesses; candida vaginal
and oral; diarrhea; and leg edema secondary to malnutrition.” (R. 22). Therefore,
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Corley failed to meet her burden as it relates to her contention about the May 10,
2008 hospital admission.
Corley challenges next the ALJ’s findings related to her June 15, 2008
admission at Walker Baptist for abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
(R. 227). The physician preliminarily diagnosed Corley with “abdominal pain,
possible ileus, versus obstruction, versus gastroenteritis,” to be confirmed by a
surgical evaluation, dehydration, and uncontrolled diabetes. (R. 228). The
physician treated Corley with IV fluids, Vancomycin for clostridium difficile, and
Accu-Cheks to monitor her diabetes. Id. As it relates to this visit, Corley
contends that the ALJ erred by reporting only that Corley complained of
abdominal pain and that she needed to comply with her diet and diabetes insulin
treatment. Doc. 8 at 5. Presumably, Corley contends that the ALJ would have
found her disabled had the ALJ included Corley’s complaints of nausea, vomiting,
and diarrhea, and preliminary diagnosis of possible obstruction and gastroenteritis.
However, Corley failed to explain how the omitted information is relevant to her
disability determination. Moreover, it made sense for the ALJ to report only the
abdominal pain diagnosis rather than the other unconfirmed “possible” causes the
treating physician listed. In short, the ALJ committed no error in his assessment
of the June 15, 2008 hospital admission.
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The next hospital admission Corley challenges occurred on April 10, 2009,
when Corley presented again to Walker Baptist with diabetic ketoacidosis that
“appeared” caused by her “failure to take [her] basil insulin in the setting of oral
pain.” (R. 359). The hospital treated Corley with IV fluid hydration, IV glucose,
and an insulin drip, diagnosed Corley with diabetes mellitus and diarrhea with
“profound weight loss,” and discharged her in fair condition. (R. 359-360).
Corley asserts that the ALJ “neglected to add that the failure to take the basal
insulin was in the setting of oral pain having undergone tooth extraction the day
before” and failed to describe Corley’s weight loss as “profound.” Doc. 8 at 6.
However, Corley failed to explain how pain from a tooth extraction rendered her
incapable of taking her insulin. Moreover, regardless of the reason, the ALJ’s
basic premise that Corley failed to take her insulin is correct and while the ALJ
failed to include the “profound” description, the ALJ reported that Corley’s
“weight loss over the prior two years was noted” and referenced Corley’s
“malnutrition” diagnosis from the May 10, 2008, and October 9, 2008, hospital
admissions. (R. 22). In other words, contrary to Corley’s contentions, the ALJ
properly considered Corley’s weight loss.
Finally, Corley challenges the ALJ’s consideration of the medical records
related to October 1, 2009, when Corley returned to Walker Baptist’s emergency
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room with suicidal thoughts and depression. (R. 440). Walker Baptist admitted
Corley to its Behavior Medicine Unit, which diagnosed Corley with major
depressive disorder, recurrent generalized anxiety, opioid abuse, history of eating
disorder, diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, migraines, scoliosis, anorexia
nervosa, recurrent diarrhea, and abdominal pain. (R. 447-448). Corley had an
intake Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 30 and a discharge
score of approximately 40-45. (R. 440, 444).1 The treating physician noted that
Corley’s “main concern was detox from the substances that she had been abusing
prior to admission,” (R. 445), and treated Corley with opiate withdrawal
medications, insulin, Neurontin, Celexa, and BuSpar, (R. 448).
Regarding her October 1, 2009 admission, Corley asserts first that the ALJ
failed to mention her GAF score. Doc. 8 at 6. There is no error because the ALJ
noted Corley’s diagnosis of major depressive disorder and recurrent anxiety, (R.
22), and that the discharge summary described Corley as “no longer suicidal,” (R.
445), as evidenced by the increase in GAF score from 30 to 40-45. Corley
The Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) Scales are used to score the severity of
psychiatric illnesses. A GAF score of 30 indicates behavior influenced by delusions or
hallucinations or serious impairment in communication or judgement or inability to function in
almost all areas. A GAF score of 40-45 indicates some impairment in reality testing or
communication or major impairment in several areas, such as work or school, family relations,
judgment, thinking, or mood. The American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders 34 (4th ed. 2000).
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contends next that the ALJ failed to mention her anorexia nervosa diagnosis. In
actuality, the ALJ acknowledged Corley’s “history of [an] eating disorder,” (R.
22), and noted Corley’s malnutrition at least twice in his decision. Finally, Corley
asserts that the ALJ erred by failing to mention her discharge medications. Doc. 8
at 6. While true, Corley offers no explanation regarding the relevancy of this
omission to the disability determination. Moreover, Corley’s medications are only
one factor the ALJ considers to make a disability determination. Ellison v.
Barnhart, 355 F. 3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003) (“[T]he ALJ’s consideration of
[the claimant’s] noncompliance as a factor in discrediting [the claimant’s]
allegations of disability is adequately supported” by the physician’s opinion that
the claimant’s frequent seizures are most likely due to his non-compliance.).
Furthermore, given Corley’s history of non-compliance with her medications, (R.
192, 228, 359), she can hardly claim credibly that the prescriptions establish that
she is disabled. McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 F. App’x 410, 417-18 (11th Cir. 2006)
(“Given [the claimant’s] non-compliance . . ., the ALJ properly concluded that the
medical evidence refuted [the claimant’s] complaints.”). Therefore, the ALJ
properly considered the evidence as it relates to Corley’s hospitalizations.2
Corley disagrees with the ALJ’s description of Corley’s hospital records as weak, and the
ALJ’s “focus on [Corley’s] drug dependence” and non compliance. Doc. 8 at 7. These
arguments are unpersuasive. Regarding the hospital records, the ALJ stated that “even if the
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The ALJ did not err in failing to order a medical source opinion.
Finally, Corley contends that the ALJ erred by failing to order a medical
source opinion, medical expert opinion, or consultative examination. Doc. 8 at 89. However, the ALJ is not required to order additional medical opinion when, as
here, the record contains sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make a disability
determination. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir.
2007) (citation omitted). Moreover, Corley’s well-documented non-compliance
with her medication, (R. 192, 228, 359), undermines her contention. After all, the
ALJ does not need another opinion to conclude that Corley’s failure to take her
medication is detrimental to her treatment. Finally, the court notes that, ultimately,
Corley has the burden of proving that she is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(c).
Ultimately, unfortunately for Corley, the over 200 pages of medical records she
submitted do not establish that she is disabled. Therefore, the court finds that the
ALJ’s decision to utilize this extensive record and not obtain additional medical
opinions is supported by substantial evidence.
claimant’s daily activities are truly as limited as alleged, it is difficult t[o] attribute that degree of
limitation to the claimant’s medical condition, as opposed to other reasons, in view of the
relatively weak medical evidence and other factors discussed in this decision.” (R. 21-22).
Second, Corley’s drug dependence is a part of the record and the ALJ can consider all of the
evidence submitted. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(b).
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Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Corley is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ
applied proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the
Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance
with the memorandum of decision will be entered.
Done the 14th day of September, 2012.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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