McDonald v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 8/28/2014. (PSM)
2014 Aug-28 AM 11:40
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
KIMBERLY S. MCDONALD,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Kimberly S. McDonald (“McDonald”) 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. Therefore, for the reasons elaborated herein,
the court will affirm the decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
McDonald, whose past relevant experience includes work as a cashier,
chicken puller, and fast food manager, filed an application for Title II disability
insurance benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on January 15,
2009, alleging a disability onset date of June 14, 2006, due to asthma, chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome,
and depression. (R. 23, 239). After the SSA denied McDonald’s claim, she
requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 107-08). The ALJ subsequently denied
McDonald’s claim, (R. 20-29), which became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R. 1-6).
McDonald then filed this action for judicial review pursuant to § 205(g) of the
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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)
mandates that the Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if supported by
‘substantial evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (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
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
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)-(g), 416.920(a)-(g). Specifically, the Commissioner must
determine in sequence:
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
do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that McDonald had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 14, 2006, and, therefore, met
Step One. (R. 24). Next, the ALJ found that McDonald satisfied Step Two
because she suffered from the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of
the thoracic and lumbar spine, stable asthma and obesity.” Id. The ALJ then
proceeded to the next step and found that McDonald failed to satisfy Step Three
because she “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 McDonald
had the following residual functional capacity (RFC):
the range of motion of her cervical and dorsolumbar spine, shoulders,
elbows, forearms, hips, knees, ankles, wrists, hands and fingers are all
normal; she can lift and carry up to 20 pounds frequently and up to 50
pounds occasionally; can stand 8 hours in an 8-hour day; can sit 8
hours in an 8-hour day; can walk 8-hours in an 8-hour day. I further
find claimant does not require a cane to ambulate; can continuously
(2/3 of the time) with both hands reach overhead, handle, finger, feel,
push and pull; dominant hand is the right hand; can continuously use
both feet to operate foot controls; can continuously climb stairs and
ramps, ladders or scaffolds, and balance; can occasionally stoop,
kneel, crouch and crawl; has no visual, hearing or environmental
(R. 25). In light of her RFC, the ALJ held that McDonald was capable of
performing her past relevant work. (R. 28-29). Therefore, the ALJ found that
McDonald “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from June 14, 2006, through the date of this decision.” (R. 29).
The court now turns to McDonald’s contentions that the ALJ erred by (1)
giving little weight to the opinion of her treating physician; (2) giving dispositive
weight to nontreating sources; (3) failing to properly consider her obesity in
combination with other impairments; and (4) finding she could perform medium
work in spite of limiting her to occasional stooping and crouching. See doc. 12 at
6-10. The court addresses each contention in turn.
The Treating Physician’s Opinions
McDonald contends the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinions of
her treating physician, Dr. Darl W. Rantz. The medical records show that Dr.
Rantz treated McDonald for back pain and COPD from 2004 through March 2011.
(R. 356-400, 418-39, 490-91, 505-06). Dr. Rantz also completed physical and
pulmonary residual functional capacity questionnaires on August 14, 2009, that
indicated McDonald would be unable to complete an eight-hour workday. (R. 44149). McDonald contends that Dr. Rantz’s opinion establishes that she is disabled
and, consequently, argues the ALJ erred in giving it little weight.
To determine how much weight, if any, to give Dr. Rantz’s opinions, the
ALJ had to consider several factors, including whether Dr. Rantz (1) had
examined McDonald; (2) had a treating relationship with McDonald; (3) presented
medical evidence and explanation supporting the opinion; (4) provided an opinion
that is consistent with the record as a whole; and (5) is a specialist. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). Because Dr. Rantz is a treating physician, the ALJ
must give “controlling weight” to his opinion if it “is well-supported by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent
with the other substantial evidence.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2).
Moreover, in this circuit “the testimony of a treating physician must be given
substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.”
Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). “Good cause” exists
when the evidence does not bolster the treating physician’s opinion; a contrary
finding is supported by the evidence; or the opinion is conclusory or inconsistent
with the treating physician’s own medical records. Id. Finally, if the ALJ rejects a
treating physician’s opinion, “[t]he ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for
giving less weight to the opinion . . . and the failure to do so is reversible error.”
Contrary to McDonald’s contention, the ALJ correctly applied the law and
articulated good cause for giving Dr. Rantz’s opinion “little weight.” (R. 28). In a
nutshell, the ALJ discounted Dr. Rantz’s opinions because “the two opinions are
inconsistent with each other,” and with Dr. Rantz’s treatment records. Id. As the
ALJ noted, in the physical questionnaire “Dr. Rantz stated that [McDonald] could
sit for less than two hours at a time,” while in the pulmonary questionnaire “he
stated that [McDonald] could sit for up to two hours at a time.” (R. 28, 443, 448).
Likewise, the ALJ observed that “in one opinion, he stated that [McDonald] could
sit, stand or walk less than two hours in total during an 8-hour workday, but he
stated in the other that [McDonald] could sit, stand or walk about two hours in an
8-hour day.” Id. Moreover, the ALJ found that Dr. Rantz’s statement that
McDonald had severe COPD, (R. 444), was not supported by his treatment records
or the objective medical evidence as a whole. (R. 28). For example, the ALJ
noted that although McDonald “was hospitalized for pneumonia and septic shock
in November of 2008, her treatment records show that both her COPD and asthma
[were] well controlled with medications.” Id. The report of Dr. Bruce Romeo is
also inconsistent with Dr. Rantz’s indication of severe COPD because he found no
wheezing, rales, or rhonchi on examination, and diagnosed only “[a]sthma with
stable clinical course.” (R. 494-95).
Based on the record before this court, it is evident that the ALJ considered
the factors set forth in the regulations and, consistent with the law of this circuit,
articulated good cause for giving Dr. Rantz’s opinions little weight: i.e., that Dr.
Rantz’s opinions were inconsistent with each other, his own treatment notes, and
the other medical evidence. Therefore, the ALJ had good cause for rejecting Dr.
Rantz’s opinions. See Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440 (“good cause” exists when
physician’s opinion is inconsistent with own records, a contrary finding is
supported by the evidence, and the evidence does not bolster physician’s opinion);
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2) (opinion must be “well-supported by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” to receive controlling
weight). Accordingly, because this court does not reevaluate the evidence, or
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, see Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529,
the ALJ committed no reversible error.
The Weight Given to the Nontreating Physicians’ Opinions
McDonald next contends the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinions of
the medical expert, Dr. Arthur Brovender, an orthopedic specialist, who testified at
McDonald’s second ALJ hearing.1 This contention is without merit, however,
because the ALJ only relied on Dr. Brovender’s opinions to establish McDonald’s
The ALJ conducted three hearing on McDonald’s claim. (R. 58-89, 507-27,
severe impairments at Step Two, and to find the she did not meet a listing based on
her degenerative disc disease. (R. 24). Significantly, McDonald does not contest
these findings by the ALJ.
McDonald also contends that the ALJ gave undue weight to the opinions of
the SSA consultative examiner Dr. Bruce Romeo, who completed a medical source
statement upon which the ALJ based his RFC finding. Indeed, McDonald is
correct, and the ALJ, in fact, gave Dr. Romeo’s findings “significant weight.”
However, in accordance with the law and regulations, the ALJ set forth his reasons
for doing so. First, the ALJ explained that Dr. Romeo’s findings “are based upon
direct observation and examination of [McDonald],” and that his examination
“provides the most recent information regarding [McDonald’s] physical
condition.” (R. 28). Second, in contrast with Dr. Rantz’s opinions, the ALJ noted
that “Dr. Romeo’s findings are internally consistent as well as consistent with the
evidence as a whole.” Id. Finally, the ALJ concluded that because Dr. Romeo’s
findings “have been objectively determined and [are] uncontradicted by other
objective evidence, they are entitled to significant weight.” Id. The ALJ’s
discussion shows that he properly considered the factors set forth in the
regulations in giving Dr. Romeo’s medical source statement significant weight.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c) (more weight is given when the
physician presents supporting evidence and explanation, and the opinion is
consistent with the record as a whole). Accordingly, the ALJ committed no
McDonald’s next contention of error is that the ALJ failed to “take full
account of the impairments in combination including asthma, . . . especially in the
context of obesity.” Doc. 12- at 8. Under the law, when a claimant has several
impairments, the Commissioner “has a duty to consider the impairments in
combination and to determine whether the combined impairments render the
claimant disabled.” Jones v. Department of Health and Human Services, 941 F.2d
1529, 1533 (11th Cir. 1991). Unfortunately for McDonald, the record shows that
the ALJ properly considered her impairments, including obesity, in combination.
Specifically, the ALJ stated that he “evaluated [McDonald’s] morbid obesity and
accompanying impairments in accordance with SSR 02-1p,” and recognized that
the ruling required him to “assess the effect that obesity has on [McDonald’s]
ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical activity within the
work environment.” (R. 25). However, the ALJ found that the record “does not
contain evidence indicating that [McDonald’s] obesity alone has caused her to be
unable to work, nor does it show that in conjunction with her other impairment
that it has disabled her,” and concluded that McDonald’s “obesity is not, by itself,
or in conjunction with her other impairment, so severe as to prevent her from
working.” Id. This shows that the ALJ properly considered McDonald’s obesity
under SSR 02-1p, and also that he considered all of McDonald’s impairments in
combination. See Jones, 941 F.2d at 1533 (ALJ’s finding that a claimant “does
not have ‘an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically
equal to one [in the Listings]’” was sufficient evidence to show the ALJ had
considered the combined effect of the impairments) (emphasis in original).
Accordingly, the ALJ committed no reversible error.
Finally, McDonald contends that it is “not clear from the ALJ’s RFC
assessment how an individual could be expected to perform medium work lifting
up to fifty pounds and being on her feet for eight hours a day with [a restriction
for] only occasional stooping and crouching.” Doc. 12 at 9. According to
McDonald, “the full range of medium work usually requires frequent bendingstooping.” Id. at 10. Unfortunately, McDonald’s contention ignores that the ALJ
did not find McDonald had the RFC for a full range of medium work. (R. 25).
Moreover, the ALJ asked the vocational expert whether an individual with
McDonald’s RFC, which included a restriction for only occasional stooping and
crouching, could perform McDonald past work, and the vocational expert testified
that such an individual could perform all of McDonald’s past work. Accordingly,
McDonald’s contention is without merit.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that McDonald is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the
ALJ applied proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the
Commissioners final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance
with the memorandum of decision will be entered.
Done this 28th day of August, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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