Jones v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 8/21/2014. (JLC)
2014 Aug-21 PM 03:43
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN DENISE JONES,
CAROLYN COLVIN, ACTING
) Case No.: 6:13-CV-1248-VEH
Plaintiff Carolyn Denise Jones 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
(“Commissioner”), who denied her application for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). Ms. Jones 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). For the following reasons, the court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Ms. Jones was 46 years old at the time of her hearing before the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). Compare Tr. 133 with Tr. 9. She has completed her General
Education Diploma (“GED”). Tr. 30. Her past work experience includes employment
as a door assembler. Tr. 152. She claims she became disabled on June 7, 2010, due
to back pain; numbness in her hands, feet, and face; an inability read and write well;
anxiety and depression; and high blood pressure. Tr. 151. Her last period of work
ended on June 1, 2003. Id.
On June 7, 2010, Ms. Jones protectively filed a Title XVI application for SSI
on that date. Tr. 9. On September 2, 2010, the Commissioner initially denied these
claims. Id. Ms. Jones timely filed a written request for a hearing on October 19, 2010.
Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on January 6, 2012. Id. On January 24,
2012, he issued his opinion concluding Ms. Jones was not disabled and denying her
benefits. Tr. 21. She timely petitioned the Appeals Council to review the decision on
February 9, 2012. Tr. 5. On May 13, 2013, the Appeals Council issued a denial of
review on her claim. Tr. 1.
Ms. Jones filed a Complaint with this court on July 3, 2013, seeking review of
the Commissioner’s determination. Doc. 1. The Commissioner answered on October
31, 2013. Doc. 7. Ms. Jones filed a supporting brief (doc. 10) on December 12, 2013,
and the Commissioner responded with her own (doc. 13) on February 23, 2014.
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.1 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
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;
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.
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. Jones had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 7,
2010, the alleged disability onset date.
She had the following severe impairments: degenerative changes of the
lumbar spine, borderline intellectual functioning, and depressive
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. § 416.967(b) except she can occasionally climb,
crouch, crawl, stoop, and kneel; she cannot engage in work with
exposure to vibrations; she is limited to work activity that allows her to
sit and stand at will; she is limited to unskilled work activity with
occasional coworker interaction and no public interaction.
She was unable to perform any past relevant work.
She was born on [redacted], 1965, and was 44 years old, which is
defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application
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.
She had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from June 7, 2010, through the date of this decision.
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).
The ALJ Properly Discredited Ms. Jones’s Pain-Based Allegations.
Ms. Jones alleges pain as one of the sources of her disability. Tr. 15.
Specifically, she complains of back pain and hand and foot numbness. Id. The court
will thus examine whether the ALJ properly evaluated Ms. Jones’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. Jones’s allegations regarding the disabling effects of her pain. She
first conceded that there was objective evidence substantiating some of Ms. Jones’s
alleged medical conditions. Tr. 16. She then marshaled substantial evidence
undermining Ms. Jones’s claims as to the severity of her alleged pain and to the
disabling effects such pain ostensibly had on her. This evidence included the
A December 19, 2011, x-ray of her lumbar spine revealed only mild to
moderate degenerative changes;
During an August 2010 consultative examination with Dr. Samia Sana
Moizuddin, M.D, she had 5/5 strength, normal muscle tone without
atrophy or abnormal movements, normal dexterity, normal grip strength,
full range of motion, and an intact sensory examination;
A June 26, 2008, EMG ordered by Dr. Gordon J. Kirschberg, M.D.,
before Ms. Jones’s alleged disability onset date revealed only mild right
carpal tunnel syndrome with no findings related to neuropathy
In that examination, Dr. Kirschberg also noted that the EMG findings
provided no explanation for her alleged diffused numbness and tingling;
The treatment record – which includes notes from Dr. Boyde Jerome
Harrison, M.D., her primary care provider – do not reflect significant or
legible lumbar-related clinical findings outside of mild limitations in her
lumbar range of motion and intermittent muscle spasm.
Tr. 16. Altogether, the ALJ provided “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person
would accept as adequate to support [his] conclusion.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at
1239. The ALJ justifiably characterized the objective evidence as “benign,” but she
nevertheless adjusted her RFC determination to accommodate Ms. Jones’s various
postural limitations. Tr. 16-17. In doing so, she crafted an RFC that was suitably
grounded in the record. The court thus finds her analysis legally sufficient.
The ALJ Properly Assessed the Medical Opinion Evidence.
Ms. Jones also argues that the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the
medical opinion evidence. The opinion of a treating physician “must be given
substantial or considerable weight unless good cause is shown to the contrary.”
Phillips v. Barnhard, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lewis v.
Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“Good cause” exists when
the treating physician’s opinion was not bolstered by the evidence,
the evidence supported a contrary finding; or
the treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with his
or her own medical records.
Id. at 1241 (citation omitted). The ALJ must clearly articulate his or her reasons for
disregarding a treating physician’s opinion, and the failure to do so is reversible error.
Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440 (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (“We
will always give good reasons in our notice of determination or decision for the
weight we give your treating source’s opinion.”). However, when the ALJ adequately
states specific reasons for doing so, and those reasons are supported by substantial
evidence, there is no such error. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir.
2005) (per curiam).
In this case, Dr. Harrison submitted two pieces of evidence: (1) his progress
notes from January 2009 to June 2010 (tr. 281-302) and from January 2010 to
December 2011 (tr. 345-60); and (2) a sworn statement in which he is interviewed
by Ms. Jones’s attorney (tr. 364-88). In his sworn statement, he confirmed that he had
seen her roughly 40 times since she began treatment with him in 2004. He further
diagnosed her with “low back pain . . . that’s been persistent over many years.” He
also noted that he had treated her for depression – which “waxes and wanes” for her
– hypertension (which is “moderately controlled”), and chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease. He agreed with her attorney’s description of her pain levels and
postural restrictions as “consistent” with what he’s seen from her and that such
complains could be “reasonably expected from her underlying medical condition.”
The doctor opined that her complaints seemed credible and that they corresponded
with his observations of her movements.
The ALJ considered this evidence and provided good cause for not fully
crediting it. In her opinion, she provided the following assessment:
Although Dr. Harrison indicates [Ms. Jones] is not a malingerer, does not
exaggerate her symptoms, and that her symptoms could reasonably be caused
by her condition, he does not state specific limitations the claimant experiences
because of her impairments. He merely agreed that [Ms. Jones] had reported
similar functional limitations to him as she had to her attorney, and that her
complaints would be reasonably expected from her underlying medical
condition. However, his progress notes and the other evidence of record, as
discussed previously, do not support a finding that the claimant is limited as
described in the [RFC] assessment determined in this decision.
Tr. 19. The ALJ therefore noted that Dr. Harrison never formally opined that Ms.
Jones had disabling functional limitations. To the degree that the doctor was implying
such, the ALJ discredited such an evaluation by observing that it was inconsistent
with his own medical records and with the other evidence on record. As such a
determination was supported by the substantial evidence identified above, it
adequately constituted the “good cause” required to discredit a treating physician’s
Ms. Jones next contends that the ALJ wrongly dismissed the opinion of Renee
Philpot Bowen, a chiropractor who examined her one one occasion and filled out a
RFC assessment form. This form indicated that Ms. Jones could only sit two hours
continuously at a time, stand and/or walk for one hour, sit five hours total for an
entire work day, and stand and/or walk two hours for such a work day. In the form,
Ms. Bowen also opined Ms. Jones would have to lay down one hour per work day to
rest and alleviate her pain. The ALJ declined to give this opinion controlling weight
for three reasons:
a chiropractor is not an acceptable medical source;
Ms. Bowen did not have a “meaningful treating relationship” with Ms
Ms. Bowen provided her opinion in the form of a “check mark” RFC
assessment (which the ALJ gave little weight).
Substantial evidence supports each of these reasons, and they accord with the
prevailing precedent within the Eleventh Circuit. See Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1160 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (citations omitted) (holding
that the ALJ properly discredited the claimant’s chiropractor’s opinion because he
was not an “acceptable source” and thus his opinion could not establish an
impairment for Social Security disability purposes).
Substantial Evidence Supported the ALJ’s Mental RFC Determination.
Beyond her physical, pain-based allegations, Ms. Jones also claims that her
severe mental impairments are disabling. As noted, the ALJ found that Ms. Jones had
the severe impairment of “borderline intellectual functioning.” “[B]orderline
intellectual functioning is a nonexertional impairment.” Williams v. Massanari, Case
No. CA 00-0787-BH-C, 2001 WL 530458, at *3 (S.D. Ala. May 10, 2001). However,
the ALJ concluded that neither it – nor any of her claimed depressive symptoms –
disabled Ms. Jones. She specifically concluded that Ms. Jones was “limited to, but
capable of sustaining, unskilled work activity with occasional coworker interaction
and no public interaction.” Tr. 17. In support of this conclusion, the ALJ cited the
Ms. Jones “has not generally received the type of treatment one would
expect from an individual alleging disabling mental health symptoms
Although Ms. Jones had been prescribed Celexa by Dr. Harrison, his
treatment notes did not reflect that she regularly or consistently
complained to him of mental health symptoms;
Moreover, she had not received mental health treatment from a mental
healthy care specialist – only Dr. Harrison (nor was there evidence Dr.
Harrison referred her to one);
In her August 2010 consultative examination with Dr. Jerry Gragg, Psy.
D., she reported only mild restriction in her daily living activities
secondary to depressive moods;
During that examination, Dr. Gragg reported that she was fully oriented,
demonstrated no significant impairment in her memory functioning,
displaying good capacity for attention and concentration, her fund of
knowledge was consistent with her education, and she had no
impairment in her receptive or expressive language;
Furthermore, Dr. Gragg reported that she had normal motor functioning
and speech, with logical, relevant, and goal-directed thought process;
Although she demonstrated intelligence in the borderline range and did
not try very hard to answer questions related to her background, Dr.
Gragg opined that she retained the capacity to respond appropriately to
supervision, had adequate social skills to relate to others, and
demonstrated adequate intellectual functioning to be able to understand,
remember, and carry out simple instructions.
Tr. 17. In regard to the latter evidence, the ALJ stated the following regarding Ms.
[Ms. Jones’s] diagnosed borderline intellectual functioning could reasonably
be expected to prevent her from engaging in skilled work activity. Based on
[her] performance during the mental status examination, the undersigned finds
[Ms. Jones] limited to simple and repetitive tasks. The [RFC] accommodates
this by limiting the claimant to unskilled work activity. Additionally, based on
[Ms. Jones’s] report that she becomes agitated easily and her hearing testimony
that she does not regularly interact with others, the [RFC] limits the claimant
to work involving occasional coworker interaction and no public interaction.
However, [Ms. Jones’s] general overall performance during the consultative
mental status examination support a finding that the [she] can sustain skilled
Tr. 17-18. The court finds that substantial evidence supports this conclusion. The ALJ
meticulously documented the available evidence regarding Ms. Jones’s alleged
mental limitations and rendered an assessment that “a reasonable person would accept
as adequate to support her conclusion.” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239.
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 21st day of August, 2014.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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