Aldridge v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 9/30/2013. (JLC)
2013 Sep-30 AM 09:36
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
KAREN FARRELL ALDRIDGE,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
) Case No.: 6:12-CV-2671-VEH
Plaintiff Karen Farrell Aldridge (“Ms. Aldridge”) brings this action under 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a
final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”), who denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”). Ms. Aldridge timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies
Carolyn W. Colvin was named the Acting Commissioner on February 14, 2013. See
http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pressoffice/factsheets/colvin.htm (“On February 14, 2013, Carolyn
W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security.”) (last accessed on September
16, 2013). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), “[a]ny action instituted in accordance with this subsection
shall survive notwithstanding any change in the person occupying the office of Commissioner of
Social Security or any vacancy in such office.” Accordingly, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and
Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court has substituted Carolyn W. Colvin
for Michael Astrue in the case caption above and HEREBY DIRECTS the clerk to do the same
party substitution on CM/ECF.
available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Ms. Aldridge was 47 years old at the time of her hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). See Tr. 114. She has completed a General
Educational Development (“GED”) test. Tr. 158. Her past work experience includes
employment as a binder, laborer, nurse’s aide, housekeeper, census taker, and cashier.
Tr. 175. She claims she became disabled on June 6, 2007, due to a workplace accident
that required amputations to the index, middle, and ring fingers on her right
(dominant) hand. Tr. 153. Her last period of work ended on June 4, 2007. Id.
On March 16, 2009, Ms. Aldridge protectively filed a Title II application for
a period of disability and DIB. Tr. 49. On April 17, 2009, the Commissioner initially
denied these claims. Id. Ms. Aldridge timely filed a written request for a hearing on
May 29, 2009. Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on August 31, 2010.
Id. On September 15, 2010, he issued his opinion concluding Ms. Aldridge was not
disabled and denying her benefits. Tr. 54. She timely petitioned the Appeals Council
to review the decision on November 10, 2010. Tr. 5. On June 12, 2012, the Appeals
Council issued a denial of review on her claim. Tr. 1.
Ms. Aldridge filed a Complaint with this court on August 9, 2012, seeking
review of the Commissioner’s determination. Doc. 1. The Commissioner answered
on November 13, 2012. Doc. 5.The Commissioner filed a supporting brief (Doc. 7)
on January 28, 2013, but Ms. Aldridge did not file such a brief on her own behalf
before the deadline imposed by this court. With the case therefore under submission,
the court has carefully considered the record and affirms the decision of the
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.” Id.
This 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. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d
1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
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.2 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 an entitlement to
disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a “physical or mental
impairment” that “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” promulgated under the Social Security Act are listed in 20 C.F.R.
Parts 400 to 499, revised as of April 1, 2007.
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
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 formerly applicable
C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 56263 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).
The sequential analysis goes as follows:
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 that such work exists in the national economy
in significant numbers. Id.
FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:
Ms. Aldridge met the insured status requirements of the Social Security
Act through March 31, 2008.
She had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period
from her alleged onset date, June 6, 2007, through her date last insured
of March 31, 2008.
Through the date last insured, she had the following severe impairment:
partial amputation of the index, middle, and ring fingers from the right
She did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Through the date last insured, she had the residual functioning capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)
except she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but could
occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She could occasionally balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She was limited in handling and feeling
with her right hand. She should avoid hazardous work environments
such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.
Through the date last insured, she was unable to perform any past
She was born on March 2, 1963, and was 45 years old, which is defined
as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date last insured.
She had at least a high school education and was able to communicate
Transferability of job skills was not material to the determination of
disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework
supported a finding that she was “not disabled,” whether or not she had
transferable job skills.
Through the date last insured, considering her age, education, work
experience, and residual functioning capacity, there were jobs that
existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could
Ms. Aldridge had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from June 6, 2007, through March 31, 2008, the date last
The court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported
by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “This 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)).3 However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Strickland is binding precedent in this Circuit. See Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d
1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc) (adopting as binding precedent all decisions of the former
Fifth Circuit handed down prior to October 1, 1981).
Ms. Aldridge argues in her Complaint that the ALJ’s conclusions and factual
findings are not supported by substantial evidence and are also “contrary to law and
regulation.” Doc. 1. ¶ 6. Having not submitted a brief, Ms. Aldridge did not further
explain her arguments. Based on its own examination of the record,4 the court
disagrees with both of her objections.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Ms. Aldridge
had the RFC to perform light work.
It is obvious, from her hearing testimony and from other parts of the record,
that Ms. Aldridge disputes that she can return to work of any kind because of her
hand injuries. See, e.g, Tr. 42-43. The court will thus analyze here the ALJ’s
conclusion that she still had the capacity to perform “light” work5 despite her
impairment. As explained below, the ALJ applied proper legal standards in his
Although Ms. Aldridge did not specify her objections to the Commissioner’s decision,
the court must still “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is
reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239.
The Regulations define “light work” in the following manner:
Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of
objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in
this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most
of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls . . . If someone can do light
work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting
factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of time.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).
treatment of the medical opinion evidence and in his decision to discredit Ms.
Aldridge’s subjective complaints of pain. Altogether, this evidence substantially
supports his RFC determination.
The ALJ properly treated the medical opinion evidence.
The ALJ mainly focused on the opinion evidence offered by Dr. Nicholas
Mansuetta, D.O., Ms. Aldridge’s orthopaedic surgeon. A treating physician’s opinion
“must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the
contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004) (quotation
omitted). The opinion is usually entitled to more weight than that of a non-treating
physician. Ryan v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 939, 942 (11th Cir. 1985) (citation omitted).
Indeed, if the opinion is supported by the available medical evidence, it is entitled to
deference. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
The record reveals that Dr. Mansuetta treated Ms. Aldridge on at least five
occasions in the early months of 2008. Tr. 252-57. On January 22, 2008, Dr.
Mansuetta examined her in a follow-up appointment after a recent surgical procedure
to excise material from one of her impaired fingers. Tr. 257. Although she reported
some pain at the surgical site, her wound was “well-healed,” according to Dr.
Mansuetta. Id. He also opined that there was “no erythema and no fluctuance.” Id.
Importantly, he said, “We will allow her to go back to light duties at work on or after
this coming Monday.” Id. The ALJ justifiably emphasized this comment on Ms.
Aldridge’s employment capability, as it occurred within her alleged disability
window. Tr. 51. On March 4, 2008, Dr. Mansuetta further observed the following:
Pain symptoms in that finger have completely resolved. She has no further
complaints at this time. She is offering her injured hand to handshake now and
is not demonstrating any abnormal pain syndromes. Active and passive range
of motion is unchanged. Grip and pin strength are unchanged.
Tr. 256. He also noted:
The patient feels as if she is ready to try to go back to work but is concerned
about her endurance and stamina and also reports some significant pain at night
after she does physical work with the hand. For these reasons, we are going to
send her for one month of work hardening with physical therapy and then
anticipate a return to some work functions on a regular basis. It is unclear at
this time what her permanent impairment will be . . . .
Id. On April 1, 2008, Dr. Mansuetta recorded, “She is doing well in her volunteer
work with the Salvation Army and is using her hand increasingly without much
difficulty.” Tr. 255. He also wrote, “[Ms. Aldridge] wants to try to get back to regular
work but does not feel that she has the stamina to put in a full days work yet. I think
it would be acceptable to try a partial workweek at her regular job.” Id. On May 13,
2008, Dr. Mansuetta observed that Ms. Aldridge was using her injured hand at work
and that it was not given her “any particular pain.” Tr. 254. He further decided to
release her to “full work duties.” Id. Finally, on May 20, 2008, he gave her an
“impairment rating” after her employer informed her they didn’t have any work for
her at the moment. Tr. 252-53. He calculated that she had 69% total impairment to her
right hand “due to lost range of motion, loss sensation, and pain.” Tr. 253. He further
concluded that she had 92% total upper extremity impairment and 55% whole person
impairment due to her injured right hand. Id.
The ALJ afforded “significant weight” to Dr. Mansuetta’s opinion because he
was Ms. Aldridge’s treating orthopaedic surgeon and because he “specifically stated
the claimant could return to full work status.” Tr. 52. This weight designation was
both rational and justifiable under the prevailing law in this Circuit. The ALJ also
considered the opinion evidence offered by Dr. Marcus Whitman, M.D., who
reviewed Ms. Aldridge’s medical evidence on behalf of the State Agency. Tr. 52,
261. The opinion of a non-examining, reviewing physician is generally entitled to
little weight and, taken alone, cannot constitute substantive evidence supporting an
ALJ’s decision. Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 226 n.3 (11th Cir. 1990) (citation
omitted). However, State Agency medical consultants are still “highly qualified
physicians . . . who are also experts in Social Security disability evaluation.” 20
C.F.R. § 1527(e)(2)(i). When their opinions are substantiated by the evidence and do
not contradict that of any treating physician, they may be accorded considerable
weight. See Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584-85 (11th Cir. 1991) (citation
In his report, Dr. Whitman opined that Ms. Aldridge could “occasionally”
handle objects despite her impairment but that she could never “finger” or “feel”
them. Tr. 261. He ultimately agreed that she could work at a “light” exertion level,
noting that Ms. Aldridge could still use her right hand as an “assistive device.” Id.
The ALJ conferred “significant” weight to Dr. Whitman’s opinion because it was
consistent with the overall record and with the treating source evidence. Tr. 52.
Indeed, he incorporated some of Dr. Whitman’s prescriptions into his RFC
determination. Tr. 50. Given the legal standards articulated above, the ALJ’s
judgment was appropriate. Because the ALJ properly weighted the opinions of Dr.
Mansuetta and Dr. Whitman, their opinions qualify as substantial evidence in support
of his ultimate RFC finding.
The ALJ properly discredited Ms. Aldridge’s subjective pain
Ms. Aldridge cites her considerable pain in supporting her disability claim. In
her hearing testimony, she vouched that her right hand “hurts continuously” because
of the injuries to it. Tr. 17. She had to “keep it upright” and propped up because, if
she laid it down, it throbbed uncontrollably. Id. The pain varied, she asserted,
according to the weather. Tr. 18. In an earlier letter requesting the hearing, Ms.
Aldridge scaled her right hand pain as “always” a 4/10 “at the best” and as an 8/10
when she tried to use it. Tr. 69. As a result, she was inhibited in many of her daily
activities and physical abilities. Id. The injury constrained her personal hygiene,
household work, clothing decisions, meal preparation, and writing. Tr. 69-70. It also
affected her sleep. Tr. 17. At the hearing, she opined that she could not return to work
because the pain from her hand would cause her to take too many daily breaks and
monthly absences. Tr. 42-43.
A claimant who seeks “to establish a disability based on testimony of pain and
other symptoms” must show the following:
Evidence of an underlying medical condition; and
objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged
that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably
be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.
Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). An ALJ
must articulate “explicit and adequate reasons” in order to discredit subjective
testimony. Id. (citation omitted). Failure to do so “requires, as a matter of law, that the
testimony be accepted as true.” Id. (citation omitted). However, the ALJ does not
need to “specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision,” so long as the
decision shows that the ALJ considered the claimant's medical condition as a whole.
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted).
The ALJ here was both explicit and convincing in explaining why he did not
believe Ms. Aldridge had adequately proven an “underlying medical condition” that
could “reasonably be expected to give rise to [her] claimed pain.” Tr. 51-52. He relied
on the treating source records as indicating that Ms. Aldridge overstated the extent
of her symptomology and the resulting level of pain. Tr. 51. He observed that Dr.
Mansuetta specifically stated the claimant was having no particular pain at the time
her released her back to full work. Id. He accurately noted that the evidence indicates
that the claimant did return to work but was informed that the company did not have
any work at that time because “things are slow” and not as a result of her impairment.
Id. He also noted that, although Ms. Aldridge indicated that she had difficulty writing,
he observed during the hearing that she was able to sign her name. Id. He referenced
her own rendition of what daily activities she could still perform despite her
impairment. Specifically, she testified that she could still do laundry, cook, perform
simple household chores, and drive a vehicle. Id. The ALJ inferred from this that her
hand was still “functional.” Id. The court agrees and considers his analysis sufficient
under the standard outlined above.
The record substantially supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Ms. Aldridge had
the residual capacity to perform light work, with certain physical and environmental
restrictions. The ALJ extensively reviewed the medical opinion evidence. It showed
that Ms. Aldridge’s treating physician considered her capable of gainful employment.
The doctor’s conclusion – stated frequently over several months in which Ms.
Aldridge claims to have been disabled – was reiterated by a qualified physician who
examined her medical records. On top of these opinions, Ms. Aldridge admitted on
her own that she was still able to use her right hand in certain functional settings.
Considered altogether, the ALJ has documented “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Bloodsworth,
703 F.2d at 1239.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the parties’
submissions, the court thus finds that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence and that she applied proper legal standards in arriving at it.
Accordingly, the decision will be affirmed by separated order.
DONE and ORDERED this the 30th day of September, 2013.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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