Garrett v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge T Michael Putnam on 9/8/2014. (MSN)
2014 Sep-08 PM 04:08
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DANA LEIGH GARRETT,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
The plaintiff, Dana Leigh Garrett, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (ACommissioner@) denying her
application for Supplemental Security Income (ASSI@) and Disability Insurance Benefits
(ADIB@). Ms. Garrett timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and
the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. '' 405(g),
The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned
magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ' 626(c). (Doc. 11).
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Ms. Garrett was forty-six years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ=s”) decision, and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 27-28). Her past work
experiences include employment as a drywall installer, box-spring maker, construction
worker, and clerk. (Tr. at 29-32). Ms. Garrett claims that she became disabled on
February 16, 2009, due to neck pain, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome,
headaches, arthritis, depression, knee problems, and nerve damage. (Tr. at 41, 98, 130).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the
regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process.
See 20 C.F.R.
'' 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The
first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is Adoing substantial gainful
activity.@ 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he or she is, the claimant
is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is not, the Commissioner next
considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20
C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and
must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled.
Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch,
440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant=s impairments are not severe, the
20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant=s
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impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the
claimant=s impairments fall within this category, he or she will be found disabled
without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant=s
residual functional capacity (ARFC@) will be made and the analysis proceeds to the
fourth step. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an
assessment based on all relevant evidence of a claimant=s remaining ability to do work
despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a).
The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant=s impairments
prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work.
'' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his or her past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the
claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id.
Step five requires the court to consider the claimant=s RFC, as well as the claimant’s age,
education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or she can do other
work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(v) 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other
work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs
exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is
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met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to
be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Garrett has
not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date
of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 18). At the first stage of the
evaluation, the ALJ determined that Ms. Garrett has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ,
Plaintiff=s left knee osteoarthritis, cervical spine stenosis, lumbar disc herniation, and
carpal tunnel syndrome are considered Asevere@ based on the requirements set forth in
the regulations. (Id.) She further determined that these impairments neither meet nor
medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. (Tr. at 22). The ALJ did not find Ms. Garrett=s allegations of pain to be
totally credible (Tr. at 15), and she determined that the plaintiff has the following
residual functional capacity: the full range of sedentary work; except that she may only
occasionally crouch, crawl, climb, or kneel; may not operate foot controls, and may
frequently but not constantly use the upper extremities. (Tr. at 14).
According to the ALJ, Ms. Garrett is unable to perform any of her past relevant
work, she was a Ayounger individual@ at the date of alleged onset, and she has a high
school education and is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by
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the regulations. (Tr. at 17). She determined that Atransferability of skills is not
material to the determination of disability@ in this case. (Tr. at 17-18).
The ALJ found
that Ms. Garrett has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of
sedentary work. (Tr. at 18). Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of
sedentary work, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the
national economy that she is capable of performing, such as assembler, hand sorter, and
bench packager. (Id.) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff is Anot
disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.@ (Tr. at 19).
Standard of Review
This Court=s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a
narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson
v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir.
The Court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with
deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d
1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. AThe substantial evidence
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standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and
>the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not
prevent an administrative agency=s finding from being supported by substantial
evidence.=@ Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting)
(quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm=n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this
Court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner=s decision, the
Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at
1400. No decision is automatic, however, for Adespite this deferential standard [for
review of claims], it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to
determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.@ Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622,
624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds
for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
Ms. Garrett alleges that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and remanded
because, she asserts, the ALJ failed to properly base her finding that plaintiff can
perform some work on substantial evidence and, in reaching her conclusion, misapplied
the law and regulations. (Doc. 10). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ=s findings did not
address all of the plaintiff=s impairments in combination, and did not address the effect
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of pain on plaintiff=s ability to function. (Doc. 10, p. 8). Plaintiff points out that the
allegations of pain do not require objective proof and cannot be disregarded on the sole
basis that they are not supported by objective medical evidence. (Doc. 10, p. 9). She
further asserts that her testimony regarding the pain must be considered truthful
because there is no Ainconsistency between Plaintiff=s testimony and the well
documented medical records.@ (Id.)
The ALJ determined that Ms. Garrett could perform sedentary work with only
occasional crouching, crawling, climbing, and keeling; no operation of foot controls;
and frequent, but not constant, use of the upper extremities. (Tr. at 14).
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating
physician, Dr. Jeff Long. (Doc. 10, pp. 11-13). Dr. Long opined that Ms. Garrett
could sit only one hour per day without a break, could stand continuously only one hour
per day without a break, and could not walk for more than 15 minutes at a time.
(Ex. 8F). The ALJ gave Dr. Long=s functional capacity assessment little weight, based
upon her determination that Athe objective medical evidence of record fails to support
it, not only in his own progress notes, but also in the medical evidence as a whole.@
(Tr. at 17).
The Court must be aware of the fact that opinions such as whether a claimant is
disabled, the claimant=s residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational
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factors Aare not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the
Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case;
i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability.@ 20 C.F.R.
'' 404.1527(e), 416.927(d).
Whether the Plaintiff meets the listing and is qualified
for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court
Amay not decide 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).
A. Substantial Evidence Supports RFC Determination
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has a residual functioning capacity to perform
sedentary1 work with the exceptions and limitations set forth supra. After considering
the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff=s medically determined impairments
could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but found her statements
regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms lacked
credibility. (Tr. at 15). The ALJ properly considered the evidence that Plaintiff had
knee pain, noting that she was found to have edema in both knees in November 2009,
had difficulty squatting and decreased reflexes in her legs in 2010, and that imaging
Although the ALJ referred to the RFC as Alight work@ at page 16 of the decision, it is
clear from the rest of the decision, and from the transcript of the hearing, that the RFC was for
sedentary work. (See Tr. at 46-47).
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showed moderate osteoarthritis in her knees in 2010. (Tr. at 15). Because of the knee
impairments indicated by this evidence, the ALJ imposed limits on the plaintiff=s ability
to crouch, crawl, climb, kneel, or operate foot controls. (Tr. at 16). The ALJ also
noted that Plaintiff had moderate stenosis of the cervical spine, herniated discs in the
lumbar spine, and severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (Id.)
As a result of these
findings, he imposed some limitations on Plaintiff=s use of the upper extremities. (Tr.
at 16). The ALJ further found Ms. Garrett=s allegations regarding her disability Aless
than fully credible@ because the consultative physical examination showed that Plaintiff
had a Anormal neck, gait, and station,@ Aokay grip and strength@ and only Amild stenosis@
and a Amildly displaced nerve root@ at the lumbar herniation. (Id.)
The ALJ further
discounted Plaintiff=s allegations of disability as not fully credible because the medical
records indicated that her pain had been controlled Arelatively effective[ly]@ by her
prescription medications. (Tr. at 16).
The ALJ referred to treatment notes in which
her treating physician consistently noted that the Ameds help@ with Ms. Garrett=s pain.
The ALJ examined the evidence, along with the consultative examination, and
provided a detailed analysis and reasoning for the weight accorded to each. The
Plaintiff has pointed out that the ALJ did not separately discuss Adegenerative disc
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disease.@ In light of the ALJ=s examination of all the evidence relating to the disorders
that arose from her cervical and spinal discs, however, this argument is without merit.
Ms. Garrett further asserts that she was not obligated to substantiate her pain
allegations by objective medical evidence. However, the ALJ did not find that she did
not have the conditions or accompanying pain; the ALJ simply found that the
conditions affecting her knees, neck and back, and her carpal tunnel syndrome, are not
so debilitating as to render her unable to perform certain work. The medical records
show that the conditions did exist, but consistently rate the cervical and lumbar spine
conditions as mild or moderate, and consistently demonstrate that plaintiff was helped
Accordingly, the ALJ=s RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence.
The decision was both comprehensive and consistent with the applicable SSA rulings.
Ms. Garrett=s Allegations of Pain
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ=s evaluation of her subjective complaints of pain
was improper. She argues that the ALJ failed to address the effect her pain had on her
ability to function, and ignored her allegations that she must spend most of her day
lying in a recliner and is unable to walk, sit, or stand for any extended period.
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Subjective testimony of pain and other symptoms may establish the presence
of a disabling impairment if it is supported by medical evidence. See Foote v. Chater, 67
F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). To establish disability based upon pain and other
subjective symptoms, A[t]he 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 v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Holt v.
Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991)); see also Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551,
1553 (11th Cir. 1986).
The ALJ is permitted to discredit the claimant=s subjective testimony of pain and
other symptoms if she articulates explicit and adequate reasons for doing so. Wilson v.
Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL
374186 (1996) (A[T]he adjudicator must carefully consider the individual=s statements
about symptoms with the rest of the relevant evidence in the case record in reaching a
conclusion about the credibility of the individual=s statements.@). Although the
Eleventh Circuit does not require explicit findings as to credibility, A>the implication
must be obvious to the reviewing court.=@ Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 (quoting Foote, 67 F.3d
at 1562). A[P]articular phrases or formulations@ do not have to be cited in an ALJ=s
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credibility determination, but it cannot be a Abroad rejection@ which is Anot enough to
enable [the district court or this Court] to conclude that [the ALJ] considered her
medical condition as a whole.@ Id. (internal quotations omitted).
In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the first prong of the Eleventh
Circuit Court of Appeals=s pain standard, but she did not believe that the evidence
confirms that the impairments are of such severity that they could reasonably be
expected to give rise to the disabling pain and other limitations alleged by Plaintiff. (Tr.
at 17). The ALJ noted that the limitations described by Plaintiff could not be
objectively verified, and were not attributable to the medical conditions. (Id.) The
record supports the ALJ=s skepticism regarding her credibility, based at least in part
upon her repeated statements that medication can Aease@ her pain, and records that
show improvement after medication, trigger point injections, and epidural steroid
injections. (Tr. at 40, Ex. 6F).
The ALJ specifically addressed Plaintiff=s allegations of pain in her opinion, and
she provided explicit and reasonable reasons for rejecting Plaintiff=s testimony
regarding the severity of her pain. The objective medical and other evidence supports
the ALJ=s conclusion that Plaintiff=s conditions did not cause disabling limitations and
instead shows that she could perform a reduced range of sedentary work.
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C. Weight Given to Treating Physicians
Ms. Garrett further asserts the ALJ improperly evaluated and failed to give
proper weight to her treating physician=s evaluation of her RFC. (Doc. 10, p. 11) A
treating physician’s testimony is entitled to Asubstantial or considerable weight unless
>good cause= is shown to the contrary.@ Crawford v. Commissioner of Social Security, 363
F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997)) (internal quotations omitted). The weight to be afforded a medical opinion
regarding the nature and severity of a claimant’s impairments depends, among other
things, upon the examining and treating relationship the medical source had with the
claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to support the opinion, how
consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, and the specialty of the medical
source. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Furthermore, Agood cause@ exists for
an ALJ to not give a treating physician=s opinion substantial weight when the: A(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) (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440); see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583-84
(11th Cir. 1991) (holding that Agood cause@ existed where the opinion was contradicted
by other notations in the physician=s own record).
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Opinions regarding whether a claimant is disabled, the claimant=s residual
functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors Aare not medical opinions,
. . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are
administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the
determination or decision of disability.@ 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1527(e), 416.927(d). The
Court is interested in the doctors= evaluations of the claimant=s Acondition and the
medical consequences thereof, not their opinions of the legal consequences of his [or
her] condition.@ Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440. Such statements by a physician are relevant
to the ALJ=s findings, but they are not determinative, as it is the ALJ who bears the
responsibility for assessing a claimant=s residual functional capacity. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. '
Dr. Long, Plaintiff=s treating physician, completed a functional capacity
assessment for Plaintiff on August 9, 2011. (Tr. at 256-57). He described Plaintiff as
being unable to stand or sit for more than an hour, or to walk for more than 15 minutes.
(Tr. at 256). He stated that he has seen Plaintiff more than 20 times. (Id.) Dr. Long
further stated that Plaintiff would miss more than 16 days of work per month due to
her impairments. (Tr. at 256).
The Plaintiff argues that Dr. Long=s assessment should be controlling, and that
the ALJ improperly gave little weight to the evaluation. The ALJ provided a thorough
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discussion of the Plaintiff=s medical records from Dr. Long, discussing the
improvements seen with medication and other treatments. The ALJ correctly noted
that the treatment notes and Ms. Garrett=s testimony from the hearing consistently
indicate that she has no side effects from her medication except drowsiness.
The ALJ rejected Dr. Long=s Functional Capacity Assessment as inconsistent
with his earlier records and treatments. See, e.g., Stanley v. Secretary of Health and Human
Servs., 39 F.3d 115, 118 (6th Cir. 1994) (A[T]he ALJ did not err in declining to refer to
[the treating physician=s] opinion because [the treating physician] originally opined that
claimant could perform sedentary work and did not provide any objective medical
evidence to support his change of heart.@); see also Villarreal v. Secretary of Health &
Human Servs., 818 F.2d 461, 463 (6th Cir. 1987) (holding that the ALJ reasonably relied
on Plaintiff=s Aconservative treatment@ in assessing credibility). The information
regarding Ms. Garrett=s inability to walk, sit or stand is largely unsupported by the other
evidence in the record. Plaintiff=s own testimony was that she could walk for 15 to 30
minutes before she needed to rest. (Tr. at 35). The ALJ therefore had good cause to
disregard Dr. Long=s assessment based upon its inconsistency with the treating doctor=s
own records and the plaintiff=s own testimony. See Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159-60; Phillips,
357 F.3d at 1240-41.
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Finally, Ms. Garrett asserts that Dr. Longmire=s opinions also were entitled to
more weight than the ALJ gave them. Dr. Longmire noted, on January 18, 2011, an
antalgic gait, reduced range of motion in her shoulders and spine, and weakness in her
legs and arms. (Tr. at 238). Dr. Longmire saw Ms. Garrett, however, a week after a
fall. (Id.) While his records demonstrate some agreement with Dr. Long=s prescription
of narcotic pain medication, they do little to provide any insight into the chronic pain
Ms. Garrett claims to have. Dr. Longmire relied upon the same records of mild to
moderate stenosis and disc disorders as noted by Dr. Long. Similarly, Dr. Ali reports
the same bulging or herniated discs and mild stenosis, but also notes improvements
with medication and injections.
(Tr. at 213-233).
In this case, the ALJ specifically determined that the objective medical evidence
failed to support Dr. Long=s opinion (Tr. at 17), and that Dr. Long=s opinion was
inconsistent with the evidence that showed that medication helped ease the plaintiff=s
pain. The same objective evidence of Amild to moderate@ impairment supported the
ALJ=s evaluation of the records of Drs. Ali and Longmire. The ALJ=s determination
must stand, even when the treating physicians Awould most likely disagree@ with the
ALJ, and even when the court finds that Athe evidence preponderates against@ the ALJ=s
decision. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 14 (11th Cir. 2005).
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Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Ms. Garrett=s
arguments, the Court finds the Commissioner=s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and is in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will be entered.
DATED this 8th day of September, 2014.
T. MICHAEL PUTNAM
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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