Seal v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 3/25/2015. (KEK)
2015 Mar-25 PM 04:28
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JULIA MICHELLE SEAL,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Social Security Administration,
Case No.: 6:13-cv-02283-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c), Julia Michelle Seal seeks
judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security,
affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who denied Ms.
Seal’s claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and
supplemental security income benefits. Because substantial evidence supports the
ALJ’s decision, the Court affirms the Commissioner’s ruling.
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. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 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 ALJ’s findings. “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:
On January 14, 2011, Ms. Seal applied for a period of disability, disability
insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. (Doc. 8-7, pp. 215).
The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Seal’s application on
February 24, 2011. (Doc. 8-5, pp. 2-3). At Ms. Seal’s request, on February 29,
2012, an Administrative Law Judge conducted a hearing concerning Ms. Seal’s
application. (Doc.8-4, pp 30-67). Ms. Seal and an impartial vocational expert
testified at the hearing. (Doc. 8-4, p. 31). At the time of his hearing, Ms. Seal was
38 years old.1 (Doc. 8-4, p. 36). Ms. Seal completed her GED, and she had a
cosmetology license.2 (Doc. 8-4, p. 50). Her past relevant work experience is as a
cosmetologist, a sewing machine operator, a bundler, a house cleaner, a cashier, a
telemarketer, and a telephone service operator. (Doc. 8-4, pp. 50-51, 62).
In December 2010, Ms. Seal fell from a porch and injured both of her
ankles. After surgery on both ankles, Ms. Seal gained more than 50 pounds. (Doc.
8-4, p. 36-37). Ms. Seal has eight screws and a plate in one ankle that she claims is
“still broken.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 37). She also suffers from depression and has a
pinched nerve. (Doc. 8-4, p. 37). At the time of the hearing, Ms. Seal was seeing
no physicians other than an orthopedic doctor who treated her ankle injuries. (Doc.
84-4, p. 42-44).
At 38 years of age, 20 C.F.R. §404.1563(c) designates Ms. Seal as a “younger person,” whose
age will not seriously affect her capacity to find work.
Ms. Seal’s cosmetology license has expired. (Doc. 8-4, p. 50).
On April 6, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Seal’s request for disability benefits.3
(Doc. 8-4, pp. 14-25). In his decision, the ALJ found that Ms. Seal had not
“engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 6, 2009, the alleged onset
date.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 16). In addition, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Seal “has the
following severe impairments: bilateral ankle fractures ; obesity; major
depressive disorder; adjustment disorder; and opioid dependence.” (Doc. 8-4, p.
The ALJ found that “these impairments result in more than minimal
limitation in [Ms. Seal]’s ability to perform work-related activities.” (Doc. 8-4, p.
16). The ALJ also concluded that Ms. Seal suffers from the following non-severe
impairments: otalgia, bronchitis, finger laceration, scalp laceration, back sprain,
scabies, conjunctivitis, pharyngitis, and carpel tunnel syndrome. (Doc. 8-4, p. 17).
The ALJ found that Ms. Seal’s mental impairments “do not meet or medically
equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 18).
Based on these factual findings, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Seal has the
“residual functional capacity:  to perform light work;  never climb ladders,
ropes or scaffolds; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, wetness, and
humidity;  avoid all exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery,
uneven surfaces, large bodies of water, and commercial driving;  perform
The Court reviewed not only the ALJ’s decision, but also Ms. Seal’s medical records. The
Court found that the ALJ’s description of Ms. Seal’s medical evaluations is accurate. In a
number of instances in this opinion, the Court has provided citations not only to the ALJ’s
decision but also to the underlying medical records to illustrate that there is no discrepancy
between the two.
unskilled, low stress work; and  occasionally interact with members of the
general public, supervisors, and coworkers.”
(Doc. 8-4, p. 19).
determined that Ms. Seal may perform her past relevant work as a sewing machine
operator and bundler. (Doc. 8-4, p. 23). The ALJ concluded that based on Ms.
Seal’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in the national
economy that Ms. Seal can perform including ticket marker, mail sorter, and
packager. (Doc. 8-4, pp. 23-24). Consequently, the ALJ determined that Ms. Seal
is not disabled as that term is defined in the Social Security Act. (Doc. 8-4, p. 24).
On October 22, 2013, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration when the Appeals Council
refused to review the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 8-3, pp. 2-8). Having exhausted all
administrative remedies, Ms. Seal filed this action for judicial review pursuant to
§205(g) and §1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and
To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must be disabled.
Gaskin, 533 Fed. Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013). “A claimant is disabled if he is
unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a medicallydeterminable 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. (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)).
Ms. Seal argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision
because: (1) the ALJ erred in relying solely on the state agency examiner’s mental
capacity evaluation, and (2) the ALJ failed to include a sit/stand option in his first
hypothetical posed to the vocational expert. (Doc. 11, p. 13). The Court considers
these arguments in turn.
The ALJ Properly Relied on the State Agency Examiner’s Mental
Ms. Seal argues that the ALJ erred by relying solely on the opinion of state
agency psychological consultant Dr. Samuel Williams as substantial evidence of
Ms. Seal’s mental impairments to determine her residual functioning capacity.
(Doc. 11, pp. 13-14). Ms. Seal contends that Dr. Williams’s opinion is insufficient
to support the ALJ’s residual functioning capacity finding because Dr. Williams is
a non-examining physician. (Id.). Ms. Seal’s arguments are without merit.
The Eleventh Circuit has recognized that the “opinions of nonexamining,
reviewing physicians, when contrary to the opinion of a treating physician, are
entitled to little weight and do not, ‘taken alone, constitute substantial evidence.’”
Gray v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2013 WL 6840288 *3 (11th Cir. Dec. 30, 2013) (per
curiam) (citing Broughton v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 960, 962 (11th Cir. 1985)). In this
case, however, the ALJ found that Dr. Williams’s opinion was consistent with the
opinion of Ms. Seal’s treating psychiatrist. In making his RFC determination, the
ALJ considered not only Dr. Williams’s opinion, but also Ms. Seal’s treating
psychiatrist’s notes and Ms. Seal’s own testimony. (Doc. 8-4, pp. 21-23).
Dr. Williams opined that Ms. Seal has mild restrictions in activities of daily
living and moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and in
maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (Doc. 8-12, p. 101). Dr. Williams
also opined that Ms. Seal either was not significantly limited or moderately limited
in understanding and memory; sustained concentration and persistence; social
interaction; and adaption. (Doc. 8-12. pp. 105-106). Dr. Williams concluded that
Ms. Seal can “understand, remember, and complete short, simple, 1- to -2-step
tasks, but not those that are longer or more detailed.” (Doc. 8-12, p. 107). Dr.
Williams also concluded that Ms. Seal can “complete an 8-hour workday, provided
all customary breaks from work are provided,” and she can make “simple, shortterm work-related decisions.” (Doc. 8-12, p. 107). According to Dr. Williams,
Ms. Seal can “tolerate non-intense interaction with members of the general public,”
and she “is likely to do best working with a small number of familiar co-workers.”
(Doc. 8-12, p. 107). Additionally, Dr. Williams suggested that changes to Ms.
Seal’s work environment or expectations “should be infrequent and introduced
gradually.” (Doc. 8-12, p. 107).
The ALJ found that Dr. Williams’s opinion is supported by Ms. Seal’s
treating psychiatrist’s treatment notes. (Doc. 8-4, p. 23). The ALJ carefully
reviewed Ms. Seal’s treating psychiatrist’s findings. (Doc. 8-4, pp. 21-22; Doc. 89. pp. 3-12; Doc. 8-13, pp. 90-97). Ms. Seal began mental health treatment in
Her treating psychiatrist diagnosed Ms. Seal with major
depressive disorder and an adjustment disorder with depressed mood. The treating
psychiatrist assigned Ms. Seal a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score of
50. (Doc. 8-4, p. 21; Doc. 8-9, p. 12). By October 2009, Ms. Seal reported that
she was “feeling better” and “looking forward to her new job.” (Doc. 8-9, p. 8).
At that time, Ms. Seal had a GAF score of 55. (Doc. 8-9, p. 8).
In February 2010, Ms. Seal reported that she was “doing good” and was
looking for a new job.
(Doc. 8-9, p. 6).
medications were working.
Ms. Seal also reported that her
(Doc. 8-9, p. 6).
During visits in August and
September 2010, Ms. Seal told her psychiatrist that she still had “a lot of anxiety”
(Doc. 8-9, pp. 3-4).
As noted by the ALJ, despite reporting
fluctuating systems, Ms. Seal’s psychiatrist did not change Ms. Seal’s diagnoses or
adjust her GAF score until August 2010, when the psychiatrist returned her GAF
score to 50 and increased her Wellbutrin dosage. (Doc. 8-4, p. 21; Doc. 8-9, p. 4).
After a gap in treatment, Ms. Seal returned to her psychiatrist in February
2011. (Doc. 8-13, p. 97). At that time, Ms. Seal was clinically stable and had a
GAF score of 60. (Doc. 8-13, p. 97). Ms. Seal reported continued problems with
anxiety and depression; however, in July and August 2011, Ms. Seal was “feeling
well” and remained clinically stable. (Doc. 8-13, pp. 92-93). In July 2011, Ms.
Seal’s psychiatrist assigned a GAF score of 65 and explained that Ms. Seal had
good judgment, insight, and concentration. (Doc. 8-4, p. 24; Doc. 8-13, p. 94).
Although the ALJ adopted Dr. Williams’s mental assessment, the ALJ did so
after recounting Ms. Seal’s mental health treatment history and explaining why Dr.
Williams’s opinion was consistent with Ms. Seal’s treating psychiatrist’s treatment
On a related note, the ALJ assessed Ms. Seal’s opiate dependency and
concluded that her addiction is not material to the RFC determination but
“diminishes [her] subjective complaints or pain.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 22). The ALJ
found that “it is difficult to determine whether Ms. Seal’s frequent requests for
pain medication are truly due to pain or mere drug seeking behavior.” (Doc. 8-4,
Accordingly, M.s Seal’s criticisms of the ALJ’s reliance on the state agency
examiner’s mental capacity evaluation are without merit. Substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s decision to deny benefits. See e.g., Wilkinson v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 289 Fed. Appx. 384, 386 (11th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (“The ALJ did
not give undue weight to the opinion of the non-examining state agency physician
because he did not rely solely on that opinion.”); Ogranaja v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
186 Fed. Appx. 848, 850-51 (11th Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (noting that an ALJ may
consider reports and assessments of state agency physicians as expert opinions and
finding that the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence because the
ALJ “arrived at his decision after considering the record in its entirety and did not
rely solely on the opinion of the state agency physicians.”).
Contrary to Ms. Seal’s contention, the ALJ was not under a duty to order
Ms. Seal’s treating psychiatrist or an independent physician to perform a mental
capacities evaluation. Ms. Seal argues that under McCright v. Colvin, 2014 WL
1513290 (N.D. Ala. April 11, 2014), the ALJ should have required an examining
physician’s evaluation because Ms. Seal’s alleged mental impairment is “broad,
complex, and/or ongoing.” (Doc. 11, p. 13). The claimant in McCright had
persistent physical ailments and a “complex medical history.” McCright, 2014 WL
1513290, at *5. Here, Ms. Seal’s mental health treatment notes suggest that her
depression and anxiety are controlled with medication. Also unlike McCright, the
ALJ did not reject the opinion of Ms. Seal’s treating physician regarding her
mental impairments. Rather, the ALJ noted that Ms. Seal’s treating psychiatrist’s
treatment notes were consistent with Dr. Williams’s opinion regarding Ms. Seal’s
mental limitations. “A consultative examination was not necessary for the ALJ to
make an informed decision” regarding Ms. Seal’s mental limitations because the
record “was fully and fairly developed” and included the state agency examiner’s
formal mental capacities assessment, which the ALJ found was consistent with Ms.
Seal’s mental health treatment history. See Castle v. Colvin, 557 Fed. Appx. 849,
853 (11th Cir. 2014).
The ALJ Did Not Err by Failing to Include a Sit/Stand Option in
the Light Work Hypothetical to the ALJ
A claimant bears the burden of proof to show that she cannot perform her
past relevant work as it was previously performed or as the job is generally
performed in the national economy. Barnes v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1356, 1359 (11th
Cir. 1991). To determine whether a claimant is able to perform her past relevant
work, the ALJ uses the residual functioning capacity assigned to a claimant to pose
hypotheticals to a vocational expert about possible work that a claimant can
complete. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b)(2), 416.960(b)(2). For the testimony of a
vocational expert “to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a
hypothetical question which comprises all of the claimant’s impairments.” Wilson
v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir. 2002). An ALJ is not required to
“include findings in the hypothetical that the ALJ [has] properly rejected as
unsupported.” Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
Ms. Seal contends that the ALJ erred by failing to include a sit/stand option
in his first hypothetical to the vocational expert. (Doc. 11, pp. 14-15). She argues
that under SSR 83-12, 1983 WL 31253 (Jan. 1, 1983), an ALJ should consult a
vocational expert to clarify the availability of sit/stand jobs at the unskilled level.
However, the ALJ did not include a sit/stand limitation in his RFC determination.
(Doc. 8-4, p. 19).4 No treating or reviewing physician observed or opined that Ms.
Seal required a sit/stand limitation. Ms. Seal relies on her personal statements to
the ALJ to establish that she had a sit/stand limitation. (Doc. 11, p. 14; See Doc. 84, p. 20; Doc. 8-4, p. 54). The ALJ reviewed Ms. Seal’s treatment for her ankle
pain and found that the objective medical evidence did not show that Ms. Seal’s
symptoms were as debilitating as she alleged. (Doc. 8-4, p. 20). The ALJ based
this finding on treatment notes from at least two physicians. In Feburary 2011, six
weeks after surgery to repair her broken ankle, Dr. J. Patrick Boyett explained that
Ms. Seal would be able to tolerate weight-bearing on her left ankle in the near
future if she showed signs of healing. (Doc. 8-4, p. 20; Doc. 8-12, p. 89). The
record contains no evidence that Ms. Seal returned to Dr. Boyett for treatment.
Ms. Seal’s primary care physician, Dr. Farouk Raquib, examined Ms. Seal on
several occasions in early 2011. Dr. Raquib diagnosed Ms. Seal with chronic left
ankle pain. (Doc. 8-12, p. 111-117). By August and September 2011, Ms. Seal
reported no ankle pain, and Dr. Raquib’s examination of Ms. Seal’s extremities
was “unremarkable.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 20; Doc. 8-12, p. 111-112). An x-ray in
January 2012 revealed “no acute bony fracture or dislocation,” and “no acute
process.” (Doc. 8-13, p. 70).
Although Ms. Seal challenged the ALJ’s findings concerning her mental RFC, Ms. Seal does
not challenge the ALJ’s determination regarding her physical RFC.
In addition to the medical evidence, the ALJ noted that Ms. Seal’s
“statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these
symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above
residual functioning capacity assessment.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 19). The ALJ also noted
that Ms. Seal’s description of her daily activities “are not limited to the extent one
would expect, given the complaints of disabling symptoms and limitations.” (Doc.
8-4, p. 22). For example, the ALJ explained that Ms. Seal lives alone, raises her
12 year old daughter, cares for her pets, independently cares for her personal
needs, folds clothes, cooks, and grocery shops. Also, the ALJ noted that “the
record contains evidence that [Ms. Seal] has worked as a hairdresser, a job
requiring ‘standing all day,’ at various times since the alleged onset date of
disability, which indicates that [Ms. Seal’s] activities have, at least at times, been
greater than she has alleged.” (Doc. 8-4, p. 22). Substantial evidence supports the
ALJ’s finding that the record does not support Ms. Seal’s allegations regarding
limitations associated with her ankle pain. Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158. The
ALJ’s hypothetical question to the VE encompassed all of Ms. Seal’s impairments
that were supported by the record. See id.
For the reasons explained above, the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision was
based upon substantial evidence and consistent with applicable legal standards.
Accordingly, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.
The Court will enter a separate order consistent with this memorandum
DONE and ORDERED this March 25, 2015.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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