Morris v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 9/29/2014. (PSM)
2014 Sep-29 AM 09:54
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ROGER DALE MORRIS,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Roger Dale Morris (“Morris”) 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
I. Procedural History
Morris, whose past relevant experience includes work as logger, filed an
application for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on February 22, 2010, alleging
an amended disability onset date of February 22, 2010, due to severe arthritis. (R. 18,
157). After the SSA denied Morris’s claim, he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R.
107). The ALJ subsequently denied Morris’s claim, (R. 15-28), which became the final
decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R.
3-9). Morris 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 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 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
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 Morris had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since February 22, 2010, and, therefore, met Step One. (R.
21). Next, the ALJ found that Morris satisfied Step Two because he suffered from the
severe impairments of “arthritis and emphysema.” Id. The ALJ then proceeded to the
next step and found that Morris failed to satisfy Step Three because he “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 Morris has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform
medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except [Morris] can do no
right lower extremity pushing and/or pulling. [Morris] can occasionally
stoop, climb, and bend. [Morris] is restricted to an occasional ability to use
his right upper extremity for pushing and/or pulling or using his right upper
extremity for overhead reaching or lifting. [Morris] should work in a
temperature controlled environment and can have no exposure to dust,
fumes, or gases.
Id. In light of his RFC, the ALJ held that Morris “is unable to perform any past relevant
work.” (R. 26). Lastly, in Step Five, the ALJ considered Morris’s age, education, work
experience,1 and RFC, and determined “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy [Morris] can perform.” Id. Therefore, the ALJ found that Morris
“has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 22,
2010, the date the application was filed.” (R. 27).
The court now turns to Morris’s contentions that the ALJ erred by failing to (1)
give proper weight to his treating physician; (2) fully develop the record; and (3) follow
Social Security Ruling 83-12. See doc. 12 at 1. The court addresses each contention in
Morris’s Treating Physician’s Opinion
Morris contends the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinions of his
treating physician, Dr. Robert Long. The medical records show that Dr. Long treated
Morris only twice. On September 3, 2010, Morris saw Dr. Long for treatment of high
blood pressure, and Dr. Long noted Morris’s physical examination was normal, and
diagnosed hypertension, COPD, insomnia, and chronic back and leg pain. (R. 240).
Although Dr. Long instructed Morris to return in one moth, Morris did not return for
further treatment until fourteen months later, when on November 21, 2011, he
As of the date of the ALJ’s decision, Morris was 59 years old, had a high school
education, and past relevant heavy semi-skilled work as a logger. (R. 26).
complained of abdominal pain, nausea, and fatigue. (R. 239). Dr. Long noted that Morris
tested positive for H. pylori,2 and diagnosed gastritis, H. pylori infection, and
depression/insomnia. (R. 239). Dr. Long also completed a questionnaire provided by
Morris’s attorney on January 5, 2012, that indicated Morris was currently unable to
sustain an eight-hour work day. (R. 259). Morris contends that this opinion establishes
that he is disabled and, consequently, argues the ALJ erred in giving it no weight.
To determine how much weight, if any, to give Dr. Long’s opinions, the ALJ had
to consider several factors, including whether Dr. Long (1) had examined Morris; (2) had
a treating relationship with Morris; (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.
Long 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
“H. pylori is a common gastric pathogen that causes gastritis, peptic ulcer
disease, gastric adenocarcinoma, and low-grade gastric lymphoma. Infection may be
asymptomatic or result in varying degrees of dyspepsia.”
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.” Id.
The ALJ considered these factors, and ultimately gave “no weight” to Dr. Long’s
opinion. (R. 25). In reaching this decision, the ALJ provided multiple reasons–all of
which are supported by substantial evidence–that constituted good cause for rejecting Dr.
Long’s opinion. First, the ALJ correctly found that the opinion “is quite conclusory,
providing very little explanation of the evidence relied on in forming that opinion.” (R.
25); see Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d at 1440 (good cause exists when the opinion is
conclusory); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c) (more weight is given when the
physician presents supporting evidence and explanation). Second, the ALJ noted that
“while [Dr. Long] does have a treating relationship with [Morris], the treatment history is
quite brief and, indeed, constitutes two visits more than a year apart.” (R. 25-26); see
Petteway v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 353 F.App’x 287, 290 (11th Cir. 2009) (good cause
exists when the record shows infrequent medical visits). Finally, the ALJ found Dr.
Long’s opinion was inconsistent with the other medical evidence because Morris’s
treatment history “has not been consistent with what one would expect if [he] were truly
disabled, as the doctor has reported.” (R. 26). Indeed, outside of his visits to Dr. Long,
Morris sought treatment only twice after 2006: in August 2010 for nausea and vomiting,
(R. 242-49), and in February 2011 for injuries sustained after he fell while working with a
chainsaw. (R. 250-57, 200-23). Significantly, neither of these visits was for treatment of
the chronic conditions that Morris contends are disabling. See Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440
(good cause exists when the other evidence does not bolster the treating physician’s
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. Long’s opinions little weight: i.e., that Dr. Long’s treatment
history was brief and contained long gaps between visits, that the opinion was conclusory
and offered little explanation of its evidentiary basis, and that Morris’s treatment history
was inconsistent with the opinion. Therefore, the ALJ had good cause for rejecting Dr.
Long’s opinions. Accordingly, because this court does not reevaluate the evidence, or
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, see Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529, the ALJ
committed no reversible error in rejecting Dr. Long’s opinion.
Proper Development of the Record
Morris next contends that the ALJ “did not adequately develop the record by
ordering cat scans, MRI’s and other diagnostic tests to meet [his] burden” in light of Dr.
Long’s opinion. Doc. 12 at 10. However, Morris’s contention misses the mark because
the regulations provide that it is Morris’s responsibility to provide the evidence necessary
to establish his disability: “You must provide medical evidence showing that you have an
impairment(s) and how severe it is during the time you say that you are disabled.” 20
C.F.R. § 416.912(c). The Eleventh Circuit recognized this burden in Ellison v. Barnhart,
and emphasized that “the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and,
consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” 355 F.3d
1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a), (c)). Ultimately, to the extent
there was a deficiency in the evidence, it resulted from Morris’ failure to satisfy his
burden of showing how his impairments affected his functioning.
Moreover, before remanding for further development of the record, a reviewing
court must consider “whether the record reveals evidentiary gaps which result in
unfairness or ‘clear prejudice.’” Smith v. Schweiker, 677 F.2d 826, 830 (11th Cir.1982)
(quoting Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 413 (5th Cir. Unit A July 1981). Therefore,
“although the ALJ has a duty to develop a full and fair record, there must be a showing of
prejudice before [a reviewing court] will remand for further development of the record.”
Robinson v. Astrue, 365 F. App’x 993, 995 (11th Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (citing Brown
v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 931, 935 (11th Cir. 1995). Significantly, Morris has not identified any
gaps in the evidence that cause unfairness or prejudice, and because sufficient medical
evidence3 existed to allow the ALJ to determine whether Morris was disabled, the record
was complete. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(e). Consequently, no additional development
was required, and the ALJ committed no reversible error.
This evidence included a consultative physical examination ordered by the SSA,
which showed Morris had full muscle strength and tone, without any atrophy or
abnormal movements, and that heel-toe walk, standing and sitting were normal. (R. 19596).
Social Security Ruling 83-12
Finally, Morris contends that the ALJ failed to follow Social Security Ruling
(SSR) 83-12, which according to Morris, “could justify [a] finding of disabled.” Doc.
10-11. Morris’s reliance on SSR 83-12 is misplaced, however, because that ruling
applies to “claims in which an individual has only exertional limitations.”4 SSR 83-12,
1983 WL 31253, at *1. Here, the ALJ found Morris had both exertional and
nonexertional limitations,5 (R. 21), and, therefore, SSR 83-12 does not apply. Moreover,
the ALJ properly followed SSR 83-14 (which applies to claimants with a combination of
exertional and nonexertional limitations) and relied on the testimony of a vocational
expert to find that Morris could perform other work in spite of his combined exertional
and nonexertional limitations. 1983 WL 31254, at *3-4. Accordingly, Morris’s
contention is without merit, and the ALJ committed no reversible error.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Morris is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ applied
proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the Commissioner’s
Exertional limitations affect a claimant’s ability to meet a job’s “strength
demands,” such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling. 20
C.F.R. § 416.969a(a).
Morris’s nonexertional limitations include restrictions for only occasional
stooping, climbing and bending, and for work in a temperature-controlled environment,
with no exposure to dust fumes, or gases. See SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *3.
final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance with the memorandum of
decision will be entered.
DONE this 29th Day of September, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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