Hudson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION remanding case for further administrative proceedings. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on June 30, 2016. (Haikala, Madeline)
2016 Jun-30 PM 09:38
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DONNA F. HUDSON,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Case No.: 6:14-CV-01747-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Donna Hudson seeks
judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
The Commissioner denied Ms. Hudson’s claims for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.
review, the Court remands the Commissioner’s decision for further administrative
Ms. Hudson applied for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on May 24, 2010. (Doc. 6-6, pp. 2-7).
Ms. Hudson alleges that her disability began on February 25, 2010. (Doc. 6-6, pp.
2, 4). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Hudson’s claims on July 15, 2010.
(Doc. 6-5, pp. 5-9). Ms. Hudson requested a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (i.e., an ALJ). (Doc. 6-5, p. 12). The ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision on February 3, 2012. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 2-4).1 On July 25, 2014, the Appeals
Council declined Ms. Hudson’s request for review (Doc. 6-3, pp. 2-5), making the
Commissioner’s decision final and a proper candidate for this Court’s judicial
review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) or § 1383(c).
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 “decide the facts anew,
Ms. Hudson previously filed applications for disability benefits and supplemental security
income in 2008. An ALJ denied these claims on February 24, 2010. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 2-17). The
Appeals Council denied review on March 22, 2011. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 32-34). Ms. Hudson does not
challenge these administrative proceedings. (Doc. 13, p. 2, n. 2).
reweigh the evidence,” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal
quotations and citation omitted).
If substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
decision, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against
the Commissioner’s findings.” Costigan v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.
Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).
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).
SUMMARY OF THE ALJ’S DECISION
To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ
follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or
combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or
equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of
Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past
relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are
significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant
can perform given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.
In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Hudson has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since February 25, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 12).
The ALJ determined that Ms. Hudson suffers from the following severe
degenerative disc disease with muscle spasms, chronic pain
syndrome, and depressive disorder. (Doc. 6-3, p. 13). The ALJ found that Ms.
Hudson suffers from the following non-severe impairments: migraine headaches
(Doc. 6-3, p. 13).
Based on a review of the medical
evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hudson does not have an impairment or a
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of
the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-3, p.
Given Ms. Hudson’s impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Hudson’s residual
functional capacity or RFC. The ALJ determined that Ms. Hudson has the RFC to
Sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a)
except the claimant can sit for a total of 4 hours in an 8 hour
workday and stand and/or walk for up to 1 hour each at a time with
a maximum of 2 hours each in an 8 hour workday with the ability
at the end of each hour to change positions for 1-2 minutes. The
claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and
climb ramps or stairs. She should never climb on ladder, ropes, or
scaffolds and should avoid hazardous machinery and unprotected
heights. The claimant would be limited to non-intensive contact
with the public and changes to the workplace should be infrequent
and well explained.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 14). Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hudson is not
able to perform her past relevant work as a census taker, flagger, housekeeper or
sewing machine operator.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 19).
Relying on testimony from a
vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy that Ms.
Hudson can perform, including surveillance monitor, eye glass lens inserter, and
cutter and paster. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 19-20). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that
Ms. Hudson has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, p. 20).
Ms. Hudson argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision
because the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of her treating physician,
Dr. Farouk A. Raquib. The Court agrees.2
An ALJ must give considerable weight to a treating physician’s medical
opinion if the opinion is supported by the evidence and consistent with the doctor’s
own records. See Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. An ALJ may refuse to give the
opinion of a treating physician “substantial or considerable weight . . . [if] ‘good
cause’ is shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41
Ms. Hudson also argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility and posed an
incomplete hypothetical question to the vocational expert during the administrative hearing.
(Doc. 13, pp. 37-49). Because the Court remands this case for further proceedings based on Ms.
Hudson’s first argument, the Court does not address Ms. Hudson’s second and third arguments.
(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. at 1240-41; see also Crawford, 363 F.3d at
The ALJ “must state with particularity the weight given to different medical
opinions and the reasons therefor.” Gaskin v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed. Appx.
929, 931 (11th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation and citation omitted); Winschel, 631
F.3d at 1176 (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). “‘In
the absence of such a statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine
whether the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and supported
by substantial evidence.’” Id. (quoting Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F. 2d, 735 (11th
The ALJ found that Ms. Hudson’s depressive disorder “causes mild
limitations in her daily activities and social functioning . . .” and explained that
“[i]n so concluding, the undersigned notes that the record contains some
inconsistencies concerning the claimant’s daily activities.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 16). The
ALJ pointed to Dr. Raquib’s deposition testimony that Ms. Hudson suffers from
“disabling depression and anxiety” and discussed aspects of the record that the
ALJ believed contradicted Dr. Raquib’s testimony. (Id.). Specifically, the ALJ
stated that “[t]reatment records  do not show that the claimant was ever
recommended for outpatient mental health treatment or that the claimant was noted
to have mental health issues at any of her emergency room visits.” (Id.).
The administrative record does not support the ALJ’s assertion. Dr. Alan D.
Blotcky, a psychologist, examined Ms. Hudson on November 17, 2009.
Blotcky observed that Ms. Hudson “seemed extremely depressed.” (Doc. 6-12, p.
103). Dr. Blotcky noted that Ms. Hudson achieved a score of 42 on the Beck
Depression Inventory, indicating the presence of severe depression. (Doc. 6-12, p.
103). Dr. Blotcky reported: “Ms. Hudson is struggling with major depressive
disorder, single episode, severe without psychosis. Her family physician is treating
her with Buspar.” (Doc. 6-12, p. 104). Dr. Blotcky stated: “Ms. Hudson must be
involved in psychiatric treatment for her affective illness. She needs to be under
the care of a psychiatrist and psychologist.
This treatment should include a
combination of medication and individual counseling.” (Id.). Dr. Blotcky also
found, based on the results of the WAIS-III that he administered, that “Ms.
Hudson’s intellectual abilities fall in the Mildly Retarded” range.” (Id.). Based on
these findings, Dr. Blotcky concluded that Ms. Hudson’s prognosis was “poor to
very poor because of the combination of a serious affective illness and mental
retardation.” (Doc. 6-12, p. 105). The ALJ did not discuss Dr. Blotcky’s opinion
in her decision.
The ALJ may have implicitly considered and rejected Dr. Blotcky’s opinion
– in fact the ALJ wrote that she “carefully read and considered all of the evidence
regardless of whether it is specifically cited in this opinion” -- but “without clearly
articulated grounds for such a rejection,” the Court “cannot determine whether the
ALJ’s conclusions were rational and supported by substantial evidence.”
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1176 (“[W]hen the ALJ fails to state with at least some
measure of clarity the grounds for his decision, we will decline to affirm simply
because some rationale might have supported the ALJ's conclusion.”) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, the Court remands this case to
the Commissioner. On remand, the ALJ must consider and explicitly explain the
weight accorded to Dr. Blotcky’s assessment. Id.; see also McClurkin v. Social
Sec. Admin., 625 Fed. Appx. 960, 962 (11th Cir. 2015) (“[T]he ALJ’s failure to
explain his grounds for discounting Dr. Teschner’s report is reversible error, even
though Dr. Teschner was not a treating physician.”).3
The Court recognizes that Dr. Blotcky is not a treating physician; he is a one-time examining
psychologist. Nevertheless, Dr. Blotcky’s opinion is at odds with the ALJ’s assertion that Ms.
Hudson had not been “recommended for outpatient mental health treatment.” The record also is
at odds with the ALJ’s statement that Ms. Hudson was not “noted to have mental health issues at
any of her emergency room visits.” An emergency room record from July 2007 reflects that Ms.
Hudson was taking Paxil. (Doc. 6-9, p. 70). An emergency room record from August 2007
states that Ms. Hudson has a history of depression. (Doc. 6-9, p. 82).
For the reasons discussed above, the Court remands the decision of the
Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with the Court’s
DONE and ORDERED this June 30, 2016.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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