Sartin v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 4/30/2015. (KEK)
2015 Apr-30 AM 08:23
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BRIAN PHILLIP SARTIN,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of the Social Security
Case No.: 6:13-cv-1112-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1383(c), claimant Brian Phillip Sartin seeks judicial
review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying
his claims for supplemental security income. After careful review, the Court
affirms the Commissioner’s decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the
ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review,” the Court “review[s]
the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference’ and his ‘legal conclusions with close
scrutiny.’” Riggs v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 522 Fed. Appx. 509, 510–11 (11th
Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record
to support the findings of the Commissioner. “Substantial evidence is more than a
scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d
1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004).
In making this evaluation, the Court may not
“reweigh the evidence or decide the facts anew,” and the Court must “defer to the
ALJ’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may
preponderate against it.” Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed. Appx. 929, 930
(11th Cir. 2013). With respect to the ALJ’s legal conclusions, the Court must
determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds
an error in the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ
failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a
proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145–46 (11th Cir. 1991).
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Mr. Sartin applied for supplemental security income on April 16, 2010.
(Doc. 10-3, p. 13). He alleges that his disability began on September 12, 2009.
(Id.) After the commissioner denied Mr. Sartin’s claim, Mr. Sartin requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id.). The ALJ held a hearing
on October 26, 2011. (Id.). The ALJ denied Mr. Sartin’s claim on December 22,
2011. (Doc. 10-3, pp. 30-63). On May 15, 2013, the Appeals Council declined
Mr. Sartin’s request for review (Doc. 10-3, p. 13), making the Commissioner’s
decision final and a proper candidate for this Court’s judicial review. See 42
U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
At the time of the administrative hearing, Mr. Sartin was 33 years old, he
had a limited education, and he could communicate in English. (Doc. 10-3, p. 22).
Mr. Sartin has past work experience as a saw operator and shipping clerk. (Doc.
10-3, p. 20).
The ALJ determined that Mr. Sartin had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since April 16, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 10-3, p. 15). The ALJ
found that Mr. Sartin suffers from the following severe impairments:
[a] history of skin grafts to the back and left arm and shoulder,
adjustment disorder with depressed mood, blindness of the left eye
due to a suprasellar mass status post radiation therapy, migraine
headaches, degenerative joint disease of the right knee, and L5-S1
spondylitis with muscle spasms (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
(Doc. 10-3, pp. 15-16). However, the ALJ determined that the impairments, alone
or in combination, do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in
20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 10-3, pp. 15-16).
Next, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sartin retains the following residual
functional capacity (RFC):
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry
up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, that the
claimant should be able to stand and/or walk with normal breaks for a
total of six hours in an eight hour workday and sit with normal breaks
for up to six hours in an eight hour workday, that he can occasionally
push and/or pull and reach overhead with the left upper extremity and
occasionally use foot controls with the right lower extremity, that he
can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch,
and crawl, but never work on ladders, ropes or scaffolds, that he
should avoid heavy vibratory type jobs, along with hazardous
machinery and unprotected heights, that due to his blindness, he
would be limited to mononuclear vision and may have difficulties in
peripheral vision situations; however, he would be able to read and
drive, that he can understand and remember simple instructions, that
he could maintain concentration for an eight hour workday in two
hour intervals and would have only occasional contact with the
general public, coworkers, and supervisors, and that any change in the
workplace should be gradually introduced and the claimant may
require assistance with realistic goals and making of plans.
(Doc. 10-3, pp. 16-17). When discussing Mr. Sartin’s RFC, the ALJ stated that “xrays of the lumbar spine in August 2010 showed minimal changes of muscle spasm
and the straightening of the spine with mild L5-S1 disc spondylitis.” (Doc. 10-3,
Based on this RFC assessment, the ALJ found that Mr. Sartin cannot
perform his past relevant work. (Doc. 10-3, p. 22). Considering Mr. Sartin’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there are jobs in
significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Sartin can perform. (Id.).
Thus, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Sartin is not disabled as defined in the Act, and
the ALJ denied Mr. Sartin’s application for benefits. (Doc. 10–3, pp. 23-24).
To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must be disabled. Gaskin,
533 Fed. Appx. at 930. “A claimant is disabled if he is unable to engage in
substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically-determinable impairment that
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for
a continuous period of at least 12 months.” Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).
A claimant must prove that he is disabled. Id. (citing Ellison v. Barnhart, 355
F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003)). To determine whether a claimant is disabled,
the Social Security Administration applies a five-step sequential analysis. Gaskin,
533 Fed. Appx. at 930.
This process includes a determination of whether the claimant (1) is
unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe and
medically-determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such
an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration
requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in the light of
his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to
other work, in the light of his residual functional capacity, age,
education, and work experience.
Id. (citation omitted).
“The claimant’s residual functional capacity is an
assessment, based upon all relevant evidence, of the claimant’s ability to do work
despite his impairments.” Id. at 930 (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436,
1440 (11th Cir. 1997)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).
Mr. Sartin argues that he is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision because
the ALJ (1) failed to give proper weight to the opinions of treating physicians Dr.
Jeffery Long and Dr. Shelby Sanford, (2) failed to give proper weight to the
opinion of consultative psychologist Dr. James Crowder, and (3) failed to fully
develop the record because he did not order an IQ test for Mr. Sartin. Mr. Sartin’s
arguments are not persuasive.
A. The ALJ Properly Weighed the Opinions of Dr. Long, Dr. Sanford, and
Mr. Sartin contends that the ALJ did not give proper weight to Dr. Long’s
and Dr. Sanford’s opinions that Mr. Sartin was totally disabled. The Court
The opinion of a treating physician “must be given substantial or
considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is shown to the contrary.” Phillips v.
Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240–41 (11th Cir. 2004). Good cause exists when “(1)
[the] treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the]
evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating physician’s opinion was
conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.” Id.; see also
Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159. “The ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for
giving less weight to a treating physician’s opinion, and the failure to do so
constitutes error. ‘Moreover, the ALJ must state with particularity the weight
given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.’” Gaskin, 533 Fed.
Appx. at 932 (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997), and
quoting Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011)).
In this case, the ALJ clearly articulated specific reasons for affording Dr.
Long’s and Dr. Sanford’s (referred to as “Dr. Shelby” in the ALJ’s opinion)
opinions little weight. The ALJ stated:
The undersigned has not given the opinions of Dr. Long and Dr.
Shelby significant weight in this case because both opinions offer
conclusory statements of limitations instead of actual specific
limitations resulting in the conclusion of an inability to work. Rather,
the opinions were expressed through a prepared form by the
claimant’s representative with simple circle yes or no answers and no
details provided as to the evidence to support these answers.
Additionally, the form did not define the terminology used in the
questions leaving doubt as to whether the physician has the expertise
to give an opinion based upon the terminology as defined for purposes
of disability. Furthermore, the undersigned finds both Dr. Long and
Dr. Shelby’s detailed treatment notes, including objective diagnostic
testing and clinical signs on examinations, are not consistent with the
level of functioning expressed in the opinion forms making them less
persuasive. As such, the undersigned notes the issue of whether or not
the claimant is able to work an eight hour workday (aka unable to
work due to impairments) is an issue reserved for the Commissioner
of Social Security. As a result, Dr. Long and Dr. Shelby’s opinions are
not entitled to any special significance.
(Doc. 10–3, p. 21).
The Court has reviewed the opinions of Dr. Long and Dr. Sanford and
confirmed that Dr. Long and Dr. Sanford merely completed a form that contained
The first question asked Drs. Long and Sanford to state the
duration of the doctor-patient relationship. The other three questions required only
yes or no answers. The second asked whether Mr. Sartin could sustain an eighthour workday. (Id.). The third question asked whether Mr. Sartin’s condition was
expected to last twelve months or longer. (Id.). The final question asked whether
Mr. Sartin would be limited to less than sedentary work as a result of his condition.
(Id.). There is no space on the questionnaire for an explanation or narrative to
explain the opinion. Dr. Long and Dr. Sanford each indicated that, in his opinion,
Mr. Sartin could not work an eight-hour day, Mr. Sartin’s condition would persist
for at least twelve months, and Mr. Sartin was limited to less than sedentary work.
(Doc. 10-9, pp. 21-23).
The Court has reviewed treatment notes from Dr. Long and Dr. Sanford and
confirmed that these notes are inconsistent with the physicians’ responses to the
short questionnaire. The record reflects that Dr. Long saw Mr. Sartin at Dr. Long’s
family practice five times between Mr. Sartin’s claimed onset date of September
12, 2009 and March 2011. (Doc. 10-8, pp 3-12). Before the alleged onset date, the
record shows that Dr. Long saw Mr. Sartin dating back as far as June 2003. (Doc.
10-8, p. 11). In February 2010, Mr. Sartin reported that he was about to start
radiation therapy for his pituitary tumor, and Dr. Long diagnosed him with
sinusitis, a sellar mass, migraines, and muscle pains. (Doc. 10-8, p. 7). In October
2010, Mr. Sartin reported that he was having panic attacks and felt “stressed out,”
and in November he complained of a rash, back pain, and anxiety. (Doc. 10-8, p.
6). At a later visit in November, Mr. Sartin reported experiencing four-to-five
anxiety attacks per day. (Doc. 10-8, p. 4). During Mr. Sartin’s last visit with Dr.
Long in March 2011, he complained that he could not breathe well, and he
obtained medication for an infection. Dr. Long refilled Mr. Sartin’s prescriptions
for Valium, Cataflam, and Paxil. (Doc. 10-8, p. 3).
Dr. Sanford, a radiation oncologist, treated Mr. Sartin for his pituitary tumor
between February 2010 and April 2011. (Doc. 10-8, pp. 39-48). Dr. Sanford’s
initial visit with Mr. Sartin was in February 2010. At that appointment, Dr.
Sanford noted that Mr. Sartin was blind in his right eye due to his pituitary tumor.
Dr. Sanford found no other medical problems other than migraines and arthritis.
(Doc. 10-8, p. 46). Mr. Sartin completed a course of radiation therapy which lasted
for a six week period between March and April 2010. (Id.). In March 2010, in
relation to the radiation therapy, Dr. Sanford noted that Mr. Sartin “tolerated this
well with no untoward treatment related sequlae with no headaches, skin reaction
or visual change in the right eye.” (Doc. 10-8, p. 45). Following the radiation
therapy, at his four-week checkup, Mr. Sartin reported that he had no headaches,
and Dr. Sanford noted that he was “pleased with [Mr. Sartin’s] stability and
tolerance” to the treatment. (Doc. 10-8, p. 44). Between August 2010 and January
2011, Mr. Sartin reported that he was experiencing dizziness, headaches, a sore
throat, anxiety, and depression. (Doc. 10-8, pp. 41-43). On November 4, 2010,
Dr. Sanford wrote a letter stating that Mr. Sartin “is totally disabled from his
disease situation.” (Doc. 10-9, p. 39). However, in April 2011, Dr. Sanford noted
that Mr. Sartin was “much better overall,” that the medication was helpful for his
headaches, and that his vision had improved with steroids. (Doc. 10-8, p. 39).
On this record, the ALJ gave proper weight to the opinions that Dr. Long
and Dr. Sanford expressed on the short questionnaire. “[C]heck-off forms ... have
limited probative value because they are conclusory and provide little narrative or
insight into the reasons behind the conclusions.” Hammersley v. Astrue, 2009 WL
3053707, at *6 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 18, 2009 (citing Spencer ex rel. Spencer v.
Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090, 1094 (11th Cir.1985)) (rejecting opinion from a nonexamining physician who merely checked boxes on a form without providing any
explanation for his conclusions); see also Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1065
(3d Cir.1993) (noting that “[f]orm reports in which a physician’s obligation is only
to check a box or fill in a blank are weak evidence at best.”). The questionnaire
did not provide a way to ascertain the basis of Dr. Long or Dr. Sanford’s opinion,
and neither Dr. Long nor Dr. Sanford identified the limitations assessed or the
evidence that supported the opinion expressed in the questionnaire.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that treatment notes
from Dr. Long and Dr. Sanford are inconsistent with the physicians’ answers to the
questionnaire. Mr. Sartin’s medical records indicate a fairly conservative course of
treatment that seemed to work. Because the opinions that Dr. Long and Dr.
Sanford offered are conclusory and inconsistent with the physicians’ treatment
notes, the ALJ did not err in attributing little significance to Dr. Long’s and Dr.
Sanford’s opinions. (Doc. 10-3, p. 21).
Mr. Sartin also argues that the ALJ improperly “ignored and gave no
weight” to Dr. Crowder’s opinion that Mr. Sartin had a “moderate restriction of
daily activities and poor to fair ability to respond appropriately to supervisors, coworkers and work pressures in a work setting.” In his decision, the ALJ explained
that he gave:
little weight to Dr. Crowder’s opinion that the claimant has moderate
restriction of daily activities and a poor to fair ability to respond
appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and work pressures in a
work setting (Exhibit B10F) as it appears based solely upon reports
the claimant made to Dr. Crowder at the time of the examination
which are inconsistent with other reports made by the claimant in the
record. The claimant reported he had some difficulty with authority
figures, but had never been fired from a job for not getting along with
others and was able to spend time with others daily. (Exhibit B5E).
Also, the claimant did not report these levels of severity to any
treating physician or at the hearing. Furthermore, Dr. Crowder
assessed the claimant a GAF score of 55-60, which is inconsistent
with his opinion regarding poor to fair ability to respond to
supervisors, co-workers, and work pressures. . . . [T]he undersigned
gives great weight to the GAF score assessed by Dr. Crowder as it is
more consistent with the record as a whole in regards to the claimant’s
(Doc. 10-3, p. 21).
Dr. Crowder was a one-time examining consultative psychologist. (Doc. 108, pp. 68-71). Therefore, his opinion is not entitled to deference. See Denomme v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 518 Fed. Appx. 875, 879 (11th Cir. 2013) (“The ALJ does
not have to defer to the opinion of a physician who conducted a single
examination, and who was not a treating physician.”) (citing McSwain v. Bowen,
814 F. 2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987)). Nevertheless, the ALJ still was required to
explain the weight he assigned to Dr. Crowder’s opinion and the rationale for
doing so. See Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir.
2011) (“[T]he ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different
medical opinions and the reasons therefor.”) (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d
278, 279 (11th Cir.1987) (per curiam).
The ALJ offered a sufficient explanation for affording Dr. Crowder’s
opinion little weight.
The record supports this explanation.
See Poellnitz v.
Astrue, 349 Fed. Appx. 500, 503 (11th Cir. 2009) (holding that the opinion of an
examining physician as to marked and extreme limitations was properly discounted
due to her own reports, including the GAF score she assigned, and the claimant’s
activities of daily living).
Because Dr. Crowder’s opinion is not entitled to deference, and because the
ALJ stated with particularity the weight assigned to Dr. Crowder’s opinion and the
reasoning for the weight assigned, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision
to give little weight to a portion of Dr. Crowder’s opinion.
Mr. Sartin contends that the ALJ did not properly consider sun poisoning
when determining Mr. Sartin’s RFC and the types of jobs that he still can perform.
This argument is unpersuasive. At the ALJ hearing, the vocational expert testified
that none of the jobs that Mr. Sartin still can perform (laundry folder, ticket taker,
and garment presser) would require significant exposure to the sunlight. (Doc. 103, p. 60). Thus, Mr. Sartin’s argument is inconsistent with the record.
The ALJ Properly Developed the Record.
Mr. Sartin argues that the ALJ did not discharge his duty to fully develop the
record when he did not order IQ testing for Mr. Sartin. An ALJ has a duty to
obtain a consultative examination only when a final determination cannot be made
from the record as a whole. Johnson v. Barnhart, 138 Fed. Appx. 266, 270 (11th
Cir. 2005). As the Eleventh Circuit has stated:
In making disability determinations, the Commissioner considers
whether the evidence is consistent and sufficient to make a
determination. If it is not consistent, the Commissioner weighs the
evidence to reach her decision. If, after weighing the evidence, the
Commissioner cannot reach a determination, then she will seek
additional information or recontact the physicians.
Johnson, 138 Fed. Appx. at 270–71; see also Castle v. Colvin, 557 Fed. Appx. 849,
854 (11th Cir. 2014) (holding that when the record is fully and fairly developed, it
is not necessary for an ALJ to order a consultative examination to make an
When discussing Mr. Sartin’s severe impairments, the ALJ stated:
The claimant’s representative made an oral request at the hearing for
IQ testing due to Dr. Crowder’s indication of estimated borderline
intellectual range. The undersigned has taken the request under
advisement and finds the record does not show the borderline
intellectual functioning or adaptive deficits prior to the age of 22. The
claimant reported he was in special education classes while in school,
but he also reported he is able to read, write, and understand English
(Exhibit B1E). The record also shows the claimant filled out his
disability paperwork without reported assistance (Exhibit B5E) and
previously performed semi-skilled work. Furthermore, the claimant
reported reading as one of his hobbies and was able to perform simple
oral calculations correctly during a consultative examination (Exhibits
B5E and B10F). The claimant reported he dropped out of school in
the 11th grade, got married, and performed semi-skilled level jobs. As
such, the undersigned finds Dr. Crowder’s indicate [sic] is only an
estimated functioning level and not supported by the record as a
whole. The undersigned finds the claimant’s intellectual functioning
as established by the evidence of record does not support the need for
IQ testing in this case.
(Doc. 10-3, p. 16).
The ALJ determined that the record was sufficient to make a final
determination on Mr. Sartin’s mental impairments and reduced his RFC
accordingly. The ALJ determined that Mr. Sartin is subject to a medically
determinable mental impairment and that the limitations resulting from that
impairment are mild restrictions in daily activities and moderate restrictions in
social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace. (Doc. 10-3, p. 19).
However, the ALJ did note that the record contains inconsistencies regarding Mr.
Sartin’s daily activities. (Id.). Mr. Sartin reported that he needed reminders, did
not follow written instruction or handle stress well, and did not finish what he
started. (Id.). Mr. Sartin also reported he performed his activities of daily living
independently, spent time with others daily, prepared simple meals, watched
television and movies, played board games, and read. (Doc. 10-7, pp. 31-35).
The ALJ found that Mr. Sartin’s reported activities show a fairly high level
of mental functioning with levels of concentration that allow him to maintain
attention through television shows, movies, and board games. (Doc. 10-3, p. 19).
The record contains no evidence which suggests that Mr. Sartin sought mental
health treatment. The ALJ accorded Mr. Sartin the benefit of the doubt in assessing
Mr. Sartin’s mental limitations and still concluded that the evidence demonstrates
that Mr. Sartin has only moderate limitations in social functioning and
concentration, persistence, and pace. (Id.). The ALJ accounted for Mr. Sartin’s
mental impairment by reducing Mr. Sartin’s RFC to exclude work involving more
than the ability to understand, remember, and carry out short simple instructions
and maintain concentration in two-hour intervals. (Doc. 10-3, pp. 19).
Because the ALJ properly weighed the available evidence in the record and
determined that is was sufficient to reach a decision, his decision not to order an IQ
test is supported by substantial evidence, and he did not fail to fully develop the
Consistent with the foregoing, the Court concludes that the Administrative
Law Judge’s decision was based upon substantial evidence and consistent with
applicable legal standards.
The record contains evidence that Mr. Sartin has
received treatment for a number of significant health conditions such as burns and
a tumor, but substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ’s conclusion that
Mr. Sartin has recovered from or received adequate treatment for those conditions
such that Mr. Sartin has a residual functional capacity that enables him to perform
jobs that are available in the economy. The Court may not reweigh the evidence.
The Court will enter a separate order consistent with this memorandum
opinion dismissing this case.
DONE and ORDERED this April 30, 2015.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?