Green v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 8/1/2014. (JLC)
2014 Aug-01 PM 04:25
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING
) Case No.: 6:13-CV-534-VEH
Plaintiff Arlene Green 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”) and Supplemental Security
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.”). 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.
Income (“SSI”).2 Ms. Green timely pursued and exhausted her administrative
remedies available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).3 For the following reasons, the court AFFIRMS the
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Ms. Green was 53 years old at the time of her hearing before the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Compare Tr. 171 with Tr. 23. She has a high
school equivalent education. Tr. 193. Her past work experience includes employment
as a nurse’s aid. Tr. 190. She claims she became disabled on November 13, 2008,4
due to acute chronic neck pain, upper back pain, cervical spasms, chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (“COPD”), gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), and high
blood pressure. Tr. 189. Her last period of work ended on September 15, 2004. Id.
On January 7, 2009, Ms. Green protectively filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and DIB. Tr. 23. She also protectively filed a Title XVI
In general, the legal standards applied are the same regardless of whether a claimant
seeks DIB or SSI. However, separate, parallel statutes and regulations exist for DIB and SSI
claims. Therefore, citations in this opinion should be considered to refer to the appropriate
parallel provision as context dictates. The same applies to citations of statutes or regulations
found in quoted court decisions.
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) renders the judicial review provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) fully
applicable to claims for SSI.
On March 21, 2011, Ms. Green amended her disability onset date to November 18, 2008.
application for SSI on that date. Id. On April 2, 2009, the Commissioner initially
denied these claims. Id. Ms. Green timely filed a written request for a hearing on
April 7, 2009. Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on March 21, 2011. Id.
On September 13, 2011, she issued her opinion concluding Ms. Green was not
disabled and denying her benefits. Tr. 34. She timely petitioned the Appeals Council
to review the decision on September 28, 2011. Tr. 18. On January 18, 2013, the
Appeals Council issued a denial of review on her claim. Tr. 1.
Ms. Green filed a Complaint with this court on March 20, 2013, seeking review
of the Commissioner’s determination. Doc. 1. The Commissioner answered on June
28, 2013. Doc. 7. Ms. Green filed a supporting brief (doc. 10) on August 12, 2013,
and the Commissioner responded with her own (doc. 11) on September 11, 2013.
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.5 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
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.
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 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.
After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:
Ms. Green met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act
through March 31, 2009.
She had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 18,
2008, the alleged disability onset date.
She had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of
the cervical and lumbar spine, COPD, osteoarthritis with Osler’s nodes
of two middle fingers on the right hand, and status post carpal tunnel
release surgery on the left wrist.
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.
She had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work
as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the option
to sit and/or stand afforded to the claimant for one to two minutes every
hour or so (meaning the ability to change position – sit to stand, stand
to sit). Additionally, she would be limited to occasional (meaning up to
one third of the work day) postural maneuvers such as climbing ramps
and stairs, overhead arm work, gross manipulation with the left, nondominant upper extremity, and fine fingering with the right upper
extremity; along with frequent (meaning up to two-thirds of the work
day) movements of the head, fine fingering with the left upper extremity
and gross manipulation with the right upper extremity. Furthermore, she
would need to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, dust, fumes,
odors, gases, and areas of poor ventilation, avoid work around
hazardous machinery or unprotected heights, and never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds.
She was unable to perform any past relevant work.
She was born on [redacted], and was 51 years old, which is defined as
individual closely approaching advanced age, on the alleged disability
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.
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 perform.
Ms. Green had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from November 18, 2008, through the date of this
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)). However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Substantial Evidence Supported the ALJ’s RFC Determination.
The ALJ Properly Evaluated Ms. Green’s Pain-Based Disability
Ms. Green primarily alleges pain as the source of her disability. The court will
thus examine whether the ALJ properly evaluated Ms. Green’s’s pain-based
allegations under the prevailing standards in this Circuit. A claimant who seeks “to
establish a disability based on testimony of pain and other symptoms” must show the
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 she
discredited Ms. Green’s allegations regarding the disabling effects of her pain. She
first conceded that Ms. Green’s claims were credible to a limited extent. Tr. 28-29.
Specifically, the ALJ credited Ms. Green’s descriptions of back and neck pain, left
wrist and right finger pain, and breathing difficulties. Id. The ALJ clarified that she
accounted for these limitations by prescribing certain postural, manipulative, and
environmental restrictions in her RFC assessment. Id. However, the ALJ ultimately
discounted Ms. Green’s assertion that her pain was totally disabling because of
“significant inconsistencies in the record as a whole.” Tr. 29.
The ALJ then meticulously documented which parts of the record undermined
Ms. Green’s disability claims. This included the following evidence:
a 2011 x-ray of Ms. Green’s cervical spine revealed that her cervical
lordosis was “well-maintained”;
a contemporaneous x-ray of her right hand showed no fracture,
dislocation, or arthritic changes and was noted as normal;
a March 2007 examination indicated that her lungs were clear with no
reports of continued symptoms;
an April 2007 examination noted that her lungs were clear to
auscultation with no decreased breath sounds, no audible wheezes,
rhonchi, rales, or prolonged expiration;
clinical examinations of her wrists in April 2007 and March 2009
showed normal range of motion with normal grip strength and dexterity;
she had never been recommended for surgery, pain management, or
epidural blocks as treatment for her pain;
she had never requested changes in her pain medication or sought
alternative pain medications from her treating physicians; and
there were major gaps in her treatment record between incidents in
which she sought medical aid.
Tr. 29-30. Altogether, the ALJ provided “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
person would accept as adequate to support [her] conclusion.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d
at 1239. The ALJ assessed Ms. Green’s condition in its entirety and identified
specific parts of the record that supported her RFC determination. The court therefore
finds that substantial evidence supports it.
The ALJ Properly Considered the Opinion Evidence.
Ms. Green next argues that the ALJ misinterpreted the opinion evidence
offered by two consultative examiners: Dr. Frank G. Gillis, M.D., and by Dr. Pramelia
D. Goli, M.D. Doc. 10 at 5, Tr. 258-59. In his April 26, 2007, report summarizing his
examination of Ms. Green, Dr. Gillis noted Ms. Green’s persistent reports of pain. Tr.
296. He further observed that she was generally “a well nourished[,] well developed
white female who is alert and oriented with no acute distress noted. [She was]
[a]ppropriately attired and cooperative with examiner.” Tr. 297. He finally concluded
that she “would have difficulty with job requirements involving prolonged standing,
sitting, walking, bending, lifting, pushing, pulling, bending or twisting of head and/or
waist.” Tr. 299. In her opinion, the ALJ noted this conclusion and stated the
The undersigned notes the word “prolonged” is not defined or used in the
Regulation or in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; therefore, the
undersigned finds the word “prolonged” as actually meaning “constant” as set
forth in the Regulations and in the Dictionary of Occupation Titles. As such,
the undersigned gives great weight to Dr. Gillis’s opinion regarding the
claimant’s limitations, despite only examining the claimant on one occasion,
because the opinion was consistent with his own examination of the claimant
and also the medical evidence as a whole in this case.
Tr. 32. Later on, the ALJ found this opinion consistent with that of Dr. Goli, who
rendered the following conclusions regarding Ms. Green in June 2011:
The claimant [was] able to lift and carry up to 10 pounds frequently, sit for 2
hours at a time (up to 4 hours in a 8 hour workday), stand for 1 hour at a time
(up to 2 hours in a 8 hour workday), and walk up to 2 hours in an 8 hour
workday . . . the claimant would be restricted to occasional reaching all around
and overhead, push/pull movements, operation of foot controls bilaterally,
postural maneuvers, and work around unprotected heights, moving mechanical
parts, and operation of motor vehicles. Additionally, the claimant would be
limited to frequent handling, fingering, and feeling bilaterally and exposure to
humidity, wetness, dust, odors, fumers, and pulmonary irritants.
Id. The ALJ also gave this opinion great weight and found that it and Dr. Gillis’s
report further supported her conclusion that Ms. Green could perform a reduced range
of light work. Id.
Ms. Green argues that the ALJ essentially mischaracterized this evidence.
Specifically, Ms. Green maintains that the ALJ somehow “rejected” Dr. Gillis’s
opinion by construing the word “prolonged” to mean “constant.” Tr. 258-59. Ms.
Green also contends that Dr. Goli in fact “assessed an ability to lift no more than ten
pounds.” Doc. 10 at 5. In her judgment, both doctors’ opinions support a finding that
she could only perform sedentary, rather than light, range of work. Id. at 5-6.
The evidence does not support Ms. Green’s interpretation. As a preliminary
matter, the court notes that the opinion of a one-time examiner is not entitled to
deference. McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Gibson v.
Heckler, 729 F.2d 619, 623 (11th Cir. 1986)). However, the ALJ may credit such an
opinion if record evidence otherwise supports it. Such was the case here. 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. To be considered capable of
performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do
substantially all of these activities. 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). This description – along with the detailed restrictions the
ALJ prescribed to tailor her RFC assessment to Ms. Green’s condition – cohere with
the judgments offered by Drs. Gillis and Goli. Contrary to Ms. Green’s contention,
Dr. Goli did not opine that she could lift no more than ten pounds. Rather, he
indicated that she could “frequently” – i.e. one-third to two-thirds of the time – lift
up to 10 pounds. Tr. 351. Such a conclusion is consonant with a reduced range of
light work as described above. Moreover, the ALJ’s construction of Dr. Gillis’s use
of “prolonged” to mean “constant” is both reasonable and supported by the general
thrust of the doctor’s report. Altogether, then, the court finds that the ALJ properly
evaluated this opinion evidence.
The ALJ Properly Assessed Ms. Green’s Impairments, Both Singly and In
Ms. Green finally argues that the ALJ failed to assess the collective effect of
Ms. Green’s various severe impairments. She complains that the ALJ only evaluated
her impairments separately and did not provide her overall condition with the holistic
analysis it merited.
“When a claimant has alleged [multiple impairments], a claim for [disability
benefits] may lie even though none of the impairments, considered individually, is
disabling.” Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1001 (11th Cir.1987) (per curiam)
(internal quotation omitted). An ALJ must therefore make “specific and wellarticulated findings” as to the combined effect of all impairments that a claimant has.
Id. (citations omitted); see also Gibson v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 619, 623 (11th Cir. 1986)
(holding that ALJ must address the degree of impairment cased by the “combination
of physical and mental medical problems”) (citations omitted); Swindle v. Sullivan,
914 F.2d 222, 226 (11th Cir. 1990) (finding that an ALJ did not give adequate
consideration to effect that combination of exertional and non-exertional impairments
had on claimant’s ability to work). The ALJ’s failure to consider properly a
claimant’s condition requires remand. Vega v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 265 F.3d 1214,
1220 (11th Cir. 2001).
The record here reveals that the ALJ adequately evaluated the cumulative effect
of Ms. Green’s impairments. In her opinion, she did not evaluate the impact of each
of these impairments simply in isolation. Instead, she assigned Ms. Green an RFC
designation that clearly reflected the breadth of Ms. Green’s medical history.
Moreover, the ALJ considered medical evidence from Ms. Green’s various physicians
– who, in turn, were obviously assessing Ms. Green’s entire condition and not just
specific ailments. Altogether, the court finds the ALJ’s analysis in this area sufficient
under the standards prevailing in this Circuit.
Based upon the court’s evaluation of the evidence in the record and the parties’
submissions, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner 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 1st day of August, 2014.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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