Dawson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 2/24/2014. (PSM)
2014 Feb-24 AM 08:37
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Civil Action Number
Lavon D. Dawson brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of
the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”). Doc. 1. 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, will
AFFIRM the decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Dawson filed her application for Supplemental Security Income on January
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15, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of July 11, 2008, based on systematic
lupus, emphysema, depression, anxiety, insomnia, degenerative disc disease,
vision problems, myalgia, raynaud disease, and incontinence. (R. 16, 114–22,
134A). She later amended the alleged onset date to January 15, 2010. (R. 418).
After the SSA denied her application, Dawson requested a hearing. (R. 79–82, 85).
The ALJ held a hearing on June 13, 2011. (R. 16, 414). At the time, Dawson was
47 years old with the equivalent of a high school education and no past relevant
work experience. (R. 39, 114). Dawson has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 15, 2010. (R. 18).
The ALJ denied Dawson’s claim, which became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R. 6–8, 40).
Dawson then filed this action pursuant to 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
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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 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 impairment which can be expected to result in death or which
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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.
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f), 416.920(a)-(f). 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
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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 initially determined that
Dawson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2010, the
alleged onset date, and, therefore, Dawson met Step One. (R. 18). Next, the ALJ
found that Dawson satisfied Step Two because she suffered from the severe
impairments of “degenerative disk disease (DDD) of the lumbar spine, systemic
lupus erythematosus (SLE), status post right corneal ulcer and transplant, status
post right eye cataract removal, depressive disorder and generalized anxiety
disorder (GAD).” Id. The ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that
Dawson failed to satisfy Step Three because she “does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of
the listed impairments.” (R. 23). 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:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she can sit a total of six
hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant can
frequently balance and climb ramps and stairs, but she cannot climb
ropes, ladders or scaffolds. She can occasionally bend, stoop, kneel,
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crouch and crawl. The claimant cannot perform work that requires
fine visual acuity or depth perception. Fine visual acuity is defined as
more detail than average print found in a newspaper. The claimant is
limited to work requiring simple, routine tasks and no more than
short, simple instructions and work-related decisions with few
(R. 25). Next, the ALJ determined that Dawson “has no past relevant work.” (R.
38). After considering Dawson’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, the
ALJ determined in Step Five that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy that [Dawson] can perform.” (R. 39). Consequently, the
ALJ found that Dawson “has not been under a disability, as defined in the  Act,
since January 15, 2010, the amended onset date and the date the application was
filed.” (R. 40).
The court turns now to Dawson’s contentions that the ALJ failed to include
the full extent of limitations caused by Dawson’s conditions in the RFC finding.
See doc. 13 at 12–16. Specifically, Dawson contends that the ALJ erred by failing
to (1) obtain an updated MRI and x-ray report; (2) properly consider the
combination of Dawson’s impairments; and (3) give proper weight to the opinion
of examining psychologist Dr. Alan Blotcky. The court addresses each contention
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The ALJ did not err in failing to obtain an updated MRI and x-ray
Dawson first contends that the ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record
when he did not obtain an updated MRI or x-ray report in conjunction with a
consultative exam. Doc. 13 at 13–14; see Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422
(11th Cir. 1997) (“Because a hearing before an ALJ is not an adversary
proceeding, the ALJ has a basic obligation to develop a full and fair record.”).
While the ALJ has discretion to order a test where he deems it is warranted, 20
C.F.R. § 404.1517, he is not required to do so “as long as the record contains
sufficient evidence for the [ALJ] to make an informed decision.” Ingram v.
Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007); see
Bailey v. Astrue, 739 F. Supp. 2d 1365, 1377 (N.D. Ga. 2010) (“[T]he ALJ will . . .
order tests when the necessary information cannot be gleaned from the records.”).
Although the most recent MRI in the record was taken in October, 2004, (R.
28), the ALJ did not err by failing to order an updated MRI or x-ray because the
record does not support Dawson’s allegation that either test was required. The ALJ
had no need to request an updated MRI or x-ray because Dawson testified that she
spends her day sitting or walking, (R. 430), and she has indicated that she has no
limitation in her ability to sit, (R. 161, 170). Dawson’s testimony is consistent with
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the medical record which shows that in March 2010, examining physician Dr.
Samia Moizuddin noted that “[g]ait and station examination reveals midposition
without adnormalities. [Dawson] can do heel walk. [Dawson] can do toe walk.
[Dawson] is able to squat all of the way.” (R. 371). Also, records from Capstone
Rural Health Center in 2010 and 2011 revealed no musculoskeletal abnormalities
and extended periods without treatment. (R. 31, 328, 397, 403). Additionally, the
ALJ noted that no doctor recommended surgery or restricted Dawson’s activities
based on the 2004 MRI, (R. 28), and no doctor indicated that an updated MRI was
required to properly assess Dawson’s limitations. Thus, the ALJ was able to
account for all limitations due to Dawson’s degenerative disc disease and lupus
without the need of an updated MRI or x-ray.
The ALJ properly considered the combination of Dawson’s
Next, Dawson contends incorrectly that the ALJ “never really assesses the
effect of [Dawson’s] severe impairments together as required by law.” Doc. 13 at
14. To the contrary, the ALJ specifically found that Dawson does not have a
“combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of
the listed impairments” as required by step three of the five-step analysis. (R. 23).
This statement alone is sufficient evidence that the ALJ considered the combined
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effect of Dawson’s impairments. See Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1224–25
(11th Cir. 2002). Moreover, the ALJ discussed Dawson’s degenerative disc
disease and lupus, (R. 26–32), vision impairment, (R. 32–33), and various mental
limitations, (R. 33–38), when assessing Dawson’s RFC, and the ALJ’s RFC
findings reflect that he considered Dawson’s impairments in combination: (1) back
limitations—the ALJ found that Dawson “has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she can sit a total of
six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant can
frequently balance and climb ramps and stairs, but she cannot climb ropes, ladders
or scaffolds. She can occasionally bend, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl;” (2)
visual impairments—the ALJ found that Dawson “cannot perform work that
requires fine visual acuity or depth perception. Fine visual acuity is defined as
more detail than average print found in a newspaper;” and (3) mental
limitations—the ALJ found that Dawson “is limited to work requiring simple,
routine tasks and no more than short, simple instructions and work-related
decisions with few workplace changes.” (R. 25). As is evident, the record belies
Dawson’s contention that the ALJ failed to consider her impairments in
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The ALJ gave proper weight to Dr. Blotcky’s opinion.
Finally, Dawson appears to contend that the ALJ should have given greater
weight to the opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Alan Blotcky in assessing
Dawson’s mental limitations. Doc. 13 at 15–16. However, the opinion of a onetime examiner is not entitled to the same degree of deference as a treating
physician. McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987). This is
particularly true when the examiner’s opinion is contradicted by other medical
evidence. Wainwright v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 2007 WL 708971, at *2
(11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2007). In this case, the ALJ accorded little weight to portions of
Dr. Blotcky’s opinion because they were inconsistent with the other evidence in
the record. (R. 37–38). Accordingly, the ALJ committed no error.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Dawson 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.
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Done the 24th day of February, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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