Beasley v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 12/19/2014. (JLC)
2014 Dec-19 AM 08:55
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN COLVIN, ACTING
) Case No.: 6:13-CV-1768-VEH
Plaintiff Linda Beasley (“Beasley”) 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 and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Beasley
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).1 The court
has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons which follow, finds that the
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.
decision of the Commissioner is due to be AFFIRMED.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Beasley was 54 years old on her date last insured, December 31, 2006. (Tr. 13,
54, 133). She has a high school degree. (Tr. 29). She previously worked as a restaurant
manager. (Tr. 28, 42-43). Beasley alleged disability since October 1, 2006, because
of neck pain, a heel spur, and high blood pressure. (Tr. 106, 133, 137).
Beasley protectively filed applications for a period of disability and DIB on
April 29, 2010. (Tr. 54, 133). The Social Security Administration denied these
applications on June 28, 2010. (Tr. 55-57). She timely requested and appeared at a
hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 47-53). The hearing was held
on January 6, 2012, and the ALJ issued a decision, dated March 15, 2012, denying
Beasley’s application. (Tr. 23,19). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Beasley’s
request for review on July 26, 2013. (Tr. 1-4).
Beasley filed a complaint with this court on September 24, 2013, seeking
review of the Commissioner’s determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered
on February 14, 2014. (Doc. 8). Beasley filed a supporting brief (Doc. 11) on April
21, 2014, and the Commissioner responded with her own (Doc. 13) on May 20, 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. 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" which
"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,
562-63 (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:
The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act on December 31, 2006.
The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the
period from her alleged onset date of October 1, 2006, through her date
last insured of December 31, 2006.
Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following medically
determinable impairments: restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep
apnea, hypothyroidism, and hyperlipidemia.
Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment
or combination of impairments that significantly limited her ability to
perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months;
therefore, the claimant did not have a severe impairment or combination
The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, at any time from October 1, 2006, the alleged onset date, through
December 31, 2006, the date last insured.
The court may reverse a finding of the Commissioner only 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)).2 However, the court “abstains from reweighing the evidence or
substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).
Beasley contends that the ALJ disregarded objective diagnostic tests and a
treating physician’s opinion. She argues that even though these pieces of evidence
came after her date last insured, they establish that she had severe impairments from
shoulder and neck pain3 prior to that date. (Doc. 11 at 2-3). On this basis, Beasley
contends that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
Strickland is binding precedent in this Circuit. See Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d
1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc) (adopting as binding precedent all decisions of the former
Fifth Circuit handed down prior to October 1, 1981).
The ALJ found Beasley to have non-severe impairments of restless leg syndrome,
obstructive sleep apnea, hypothroidism, and hyperlipidemia, but Beasley does not argue that any
of these singly or in combination amount to a severe impairment. Her arguments for disability
relate only to shoulder and neck pain.(Doc. 11 at 2-3, 16). Nevertheless, the court has reviewed
the record as it relates to the previously mentioned impairments found by the ALJ, and finds that
there was substantial evidence for the ALJ’s findings that they were not severe.
“The ‘severity’ of a medically ascertained disability must be measured in terms
of its effect upon ability to work, and not simply in terms of deviation from purely
medical standards of bodily perfection or normality.” McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d
1544, 1547 (11th Cir. 1986). The Eleventh Circuit has held that the claimant’s burden
of showing severity is mild:
Step two is a threshold inquiry. It allows only claims based on the most trivial
impairments to be rejected. The claimant's burden at step two is mild. An
impairment is not severe only if the abnormality is so slight and its effect so
minimal that it would clearly not be expected to interfere with the individual's
ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience. Claimant
need show only that her impairment is not so slight and its effect is not so
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1031 (11th Cir. 1986).
The key issue in this case is whether evidence relating to a claimant’s condition
several months after the date she was last insured has probative value for her period
of eligibility. According to the former Fifth Circuit, “[t]he Social Security Act is also
clear in requiring that disability must be proven to exist during the time that the
claimant is insured within the meaning of the special insured status requirements of
the Act.” Demandre v. Califano, 591 F.2d 1088, 1090 (5th Cir. 1979) (emphasis
added). The Eleventh Circuit has stated, in an unpublished opinion, that a
retrospective diagnosis, that is, “a physician's post-insured-date opinion that the
claimant suffered a disabling condition prior to the insured date,” only supports a
finding of disability “when that opinion was consistent with pre-insured-date medical
evidence.” Mason v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 430 F. App'x 830, 832 (11th Cir. 2011)
(citing Payne v. Weinberger, 480 F.2d 1006, 1007–08 (5th Cir.1973) (holding that
the ALJ erred in determining that the claimant was not disabled when a retrospective
diagnosis, along with all other medical evidence, supported a finding of disability));
see also Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 640 (7th Cir. 1998) (holding that “[a]
retrospective diagnosis may be considered only if it is corroborated by evidence
contemporaneous with the eligible period” and citing cases from the First, Second,
Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits that are in accord).
Beasley focuses on three pieces of evidence that post-date her date last insured:
a May 2007 MRI that showed disc protrusions in her back, a nuclear body scan from
May 20074 showing arthritic changes, and the June 2007 statements of a treating
physician, Dr. Swaid Swaid, whose record stated that Beasley’s symptoms of pain
“have been present for 6 months.” (Doc. 11 at 17). The first two are results of tests
that indicate her situation as of several months after her insurance eligibility ended.
They occurred in May of 2007 (Tr. 171, 173), and so, without any opinion from a
medical source, they do not support the existence of any conditions as of December
At one point in her brief, Beasley says that this scan occurred in June 2007. (Doc. 11 at
16). However, the record of the scan states that it was performed on May 17, 2007. (Tr. 171).
The third piece, however, is a statement — or, rather, two statements — from
a treating physician. Dr. Swaid examined Beasley on June 5, 2007. (Tr. 180). This was
her first visit to Dr. Swaid’s practice. (Doc. 11 at 9). In the patient history section, Dr.
Swaid noted “Beasley is a 55 year-old female who presents to the office with neck
pain . . . Her symptoms have been present for 6 months and they are aggravating and
constant but can be worse on some days.” (Id.) Beasley came back to Dr. Swaid two
days later, on June 7, 2007. (Tr. 187). Her patient history section for this visit was
nearly identical to the previous: “The patient is a 55-year-old female who presents to
the office with neck pain and bilateral shoulder pain . . . Over the last 6 months or so
these symptoms have chronically worsened. The pain is aggravating and constant in
nature.” (Id.). Beasley contends that because the six month period prior to her visits
to Dr. Swaid would extend into early December of 2006, these statements support the
existence of a severe impairment during her period of eligibility, which ended on
December 31, 2006. (Doc. 11 at 9, 16).
The ALJ did not discuss any statements by Dr. Swaid in her findings. (Tr. 1310). The Eleventh Circuit has held that a treating physician’s medical opinion should
be given significant weight, absent a finding of good cause to disregard it. Lewis v.
Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436 (11th Cir. 1997) (“The ALJ must clearly articulate the
reasons for giving less weight to the opinion of a treating physician, and the failure
to do so is reversible error”); Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1211 (11th Cir. 1983)
(“We adopt the position of the Second and Seventh Circuits that a treating physician’s
opinion is still entitled to significant weight notwithstanding that he did not treat the
claimant until after the relevant determination date.”).
In this case, it is doubtful whether the statements presently under discussion in
Beasley’s patient history are Dr. Swaid’s “medical opinions,” or just his record of
Beasley’s statements. Context suggests the latter. They came from Beasley’s first two
visits to Dr. Swaid, so he had no prior firsthand knowledge of her condition. The
patient history seems to be based only on her self-reported symptoms, which would
mean the statements were not medical opinions entitled to any written discussion in
the ALJ’s findings. See Moua v. Colvin, 541 F. App'x 794, 797 (10th Cir. 2013)
(unpublished) (holding that because treatment notes only “document[ed] [claimant’s]
complaints and chronicle[d] the pain medications and treatment [the doctor]
prescribed,” “there was no pertinent medical opinion for the ALJ to weigh”); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2) (defining medical opinions as “judgments about the nature
and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s), including [her] symptoms, diagnosis and
prognosis, what [she] can still do despite impairment(s), and [her] physical or mental
On the other hand, if the statements are best understood as Dr. Swaid’s medical
opinions, then the ALJ was in error for failing to discuss them, since a treating
physician’s opinions must be considered during the determination. Boyd, 704 F.2d at
1211. However, such an error would be harmless, not grounds for reversal. Dr.
Swaid’s statements were made after Beasley’s date last insured, and such a diagnosis
must be corroborated by pre-insured date evidence. Mason, 430 F. App'x at 832;
Estok, 152 F.3d at 640. Unfortunately for Beasley’s case, there is no such
corroborating evidence in the record.
The only relevant evidence apparently in Beasley’s favor that precedes the date
last insured comes from her visit to the Jasper Family Practice Center on August 30,
2006. During that visit, she complained of tension in her shoulder and pain in her
lower back, as well as restless legs. (Tr. 17, 579). As noted by the ALJ, her physical
examination showed increased neck and shoulder muscle tone, and she was given
Flexeril. (Tr. 17, 580). However, the examining physician diagnosed Beasley only
with restless leg syndrome, making no diagnoses related to her neck or back pain. (Tr.
17, 581). On October 13, 2006, a few days after her alleged onset date, she had a
follow-up appointment to discuss her restless leg syndrome. At this visit, the records
show, she complained only of continued problems with restless leg syndrome, not of
any back, neck or shoulder pain. (Tr. 17, 588-91). This suggests, reasonably, that she
was no longer experiencing problems in her low back, neck, and shoulder.
The next medical record comes from a second follow-up visit on January 17,
2007, where she reported that newer medication had “helped a lot” to treat her restless
leg syndrome. (Tr. 306). As the ALJ noted, she again did not report any problems
related to her back, neck, or shoulder. (Tr. 17, 305-06). Beasley’s complaints of neck
and shoulder pain did not begin to appear in the record consistently until February 19,
2007. (Tr. 307-08). Several months later, Beasley herself told her chiropractor that
her cervical and mid-back pain had begun in February 2007. (Tr. 378).
All of these records were discussed by the ALJ in her findings (Tr. 17-18),
demonstrating that she gave them adequate consideration. The most that is
demonstrated by the medical evidence on record is that, at one point (August 2006),
Beasley complained of back pain and shoulder tension, but after receiving medication
she ceased reporting these problems for six months. This is insufficient to establish
that she had any limitations on her ability to work, as required for a finding of severe
impairment. McCruter, 791 F.2d at 1547. Therefore, there was substantial evidence
to support the ALJ’s finding that she did not have a severe impairment from lower
back, neck, or shoulder pain before her date last insured, on December 31, 2006.5
At two points, Beasley also argues that the ALJ improperly relied on a non-medical
source (Philip Tankersley, a chiropractor) to support the finding that her impairment was not
severe. (Doc. 11 at 13, 15). In her findings, the ALJ wrote:
For the foregoing reasons, the decision of the Commissioner is due to be, and
hereby is, AFFIRMED. A separate final judgment will be entered.
DONE and ORDERED this the 19th day of December, 2014.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
The undersigned notes that in a comprehensive clinical examination in September 2007,
the claimant reported that she had experienced a gradual onset of pain, starting in
February 2007, which is after her date last insured and consistent with when the record
reflects the claimant began complaining regularly of neck and shoulder symptoms.
(Tr. 18). Here, it is clear that the ALJ is not citing Tankersley’s own opinions about Beasley’s
condition or the results of his examination. Instead, she is citing Beasley’s own statements that
she made to Tankersley. Therefore, whether or not Tankersley is an acceptable medical source
for the ALJ to rely upon is not relevant in this instance, and this argument is without merit.
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?