Taylor v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 3/9/18. (SAC )
2018 Mar-09 PM 03:42
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner, Social Security
Civil Action Number
Joseph Taylor brings this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final adverse
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). The
court finds that the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) and the Appeals
Council’s decisions—which have become the decision of the Commissioner—are
supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court affirms the decision
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Taylor filed an application for Supplemental Security Income, alleging he
was disabled beginning June 27, 2013. R. 114-19, 127. After the SSA denied his
application, Taylor requested a hearing before an ALJ, who subsequently denied
Taylor’s claim. R. 7-17, 57-60. This became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. R. 1-3. Taylor
then filed this action pursuant to § 405(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 1.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial
evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v.
Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the
correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988);
Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)
and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if
supported by ‘substantial evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
(11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the
evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must
review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “reasonable
and supported by substantial evidence.” See id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703
F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a
preponderance of evidence; “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person
would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Martin, 849 F.2d at 1529
(quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by
substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings
even if the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner’s findings.
See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review of
the ALJ’s findings is limited in scope, it notes that the review “does not yield
automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.
III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to
engage in 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
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(I)(A). A physical or mental
impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).
Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in
whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer
to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three
and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than
step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior
work the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.”
Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Taylor had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 28, 2013, and therefore met Step
One. R. 12. Next, the ALJ found that Taylor satisfied Step Two because he suffers
from the severe impairments of status-post right thoracotomy and arthritis. R. 13.
The ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that Taylor did not satisfy Step
Three because his impairments do not meet or equal any listing. R. 13-14.
Although the ALJ answered Step Three in the negative, consistent with the law,
see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, he proceeded to Step Four, where he determined
that Taylor has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work,
with the limitations that Taylor must avoid more than occasional stooping or
crouching and all climbing, driving, or exposure to unprotected heights, and that he
must be in a temperature-controlled work environment with no constant exposure
to pulmonary irritants. R. 14. In Step 4, the ALJ determined that Taylor has no
vocationally relevant past work. R. 15-16. Lastly, in Step 5, the ALJ considered
Taylor’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, and determined that there are
jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Taylor can
perform. R. 16-17. Therefore, the ALJ found that Taylor was not disabled under
the Act. R. 17.
Taylor contends the ALJ erred in discrediting Taylor’s subjective testimony
of pain on two different grounds: first, by improperly evaluating the credibility of
Taylor’s testimony, and second, by giving only little weight to the opinion of Dr.
Samia Moizuddin. Doc. 9 at 3-7. The court examines these arguments in turn.
A. Taylor’s Pain Testimony
In this circuit, “a three part ‘pain standard’ [is applied] when a claimant
seeks to establish disability through his or her own testimony of pain or other
subjective symptoms.” Holt v. Barnhart, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991).
The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition
and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the
alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively
determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably
expected to give rise to the alleged pain.
Id. Furthermore, when the ALJ fails to credit a claimant’s pain testimony, the ALJ
must articulate reasons for that decision:
It is established in this circuit that if the [ALJ] fails to articulate reasons for
refusing to credit a claimant’s subjective pain testimony, then the [ALJ], as a
matter of law, has accepted that testimony as true. Implicit in this rule is the
requirement that such articulation of reasons by the [ALJ] be supported by
Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1012 (11th Cir. 1987). Although the Eleventh
Circuit does not require explicit findings as to credibility, “the implication must be
obvious to the reviewing court.” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1562 (quoting Cannon v.
Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir. 1988)). The ALJ is not required to use
“particular phrases or formulations” in his credibility determination, but it cannot
be a broad rejection which is not enough to enable this court to conclude that the
ALJ considered the claimant’s medical condition as a whole. Dyer v. Barnhart,
395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561). Therefore, if
the ALJ either fails to articulate reasons for refusing to credit the claimant’s pain
testimony, or if the ALJ’s reasons are not supported by substantial evidence, the
court must accept as true the pain testimony of the plaintiff and render a finding of
disability. 1 Id.
The Commissioner contends that this “accepted as true” rule is inconsistent with both the
Social Security Act and case law. Doc. 10 at 13-14 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A);
Immigration & Naturalization Serv. v. Ventura, 537 U.S. 12, 16 (2002); Gonzales v. Thomas,
547 U.S. 183, 185 (2006); Fla. Power & Light Co. v. Lorian, 470 U.S. 729, 744 (1985); Davis v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 449 F. App’x 828, 833 n.1 (11th Cir. 2011); Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d
1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984); Smallwood v. Schweiker, 681 F.2d 1349 (11th Cir. 1982)). Because
Taylor contends that the ALJ’s finding that Taylor had not sought continuing
treatment was an improper ground for discrediting his pain testimony, because
Taylor testified at the administrative hearing that the lack of continued medical
treatment was due to him not having any income or medical insurance. Doc. 9 at 5
(citing R. 15); R. 29. The ALJ may not draw “any inferences about an individual’s
symptoms and their functional effects from a failure to seek or pursue regular
medical treatment without first considering any explanations that the individual
may provide.” Henry v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1268 (11th Cir. 2015)
(citing Social Security Ruling 96-7p). When the ALJ “primarily if not exclusively”
relies on a claimant’s failure to seek treatment, but does not consider any good
cause explanation for this failure, the court will remand for further consideration.
Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation
marks omitted); Beegle v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm’r, 482 F. App’x. 483, 487 (11th
Cir. 2012). However, if the ALJ’s determination is also based on other factors, then
no reversible error exists. Ellison, 355 F.3d at 1275.
Taylor is correct that the ALJ’s evaluation of Taylor’s pain testimony takes
into account the fact that Taylor “has undergone no treatment since his discharge
from the hospital for lung surgery,” and that the ALJ does not specifically address
the court finds that the ALJ did not err in discrediting Taylor’s testimony, it does not reach this
Taylor’s explanation for this lack of treatment. R. 15. Rather, the ALJ states only
that the ALJ “reviewed the claimant’s subjective complaints in accordance with the
guidelines provided by Social Security Ruling 96-7p.” R. 14. However, Taylor
overlooks that the ALJ also based his credibility determination on the findings that
(1) Taylor’s claims of knee pain were contradicted by records of a 2013 emergency
room visit, which contained complaints of lower back pain and mentioned Taylor’s
knee surgery, but contained no complaints of knee pain; and (2) Taylor’s claims of
difficulty breathing and rib pain were contradicted by Dr. Moizuddin’s records,
which indicated that Taylor smokes on a daily basis, and contain no mention of rib
pain. R. 15. As both of these inconsistencies provide substantial evidence
supporting the ALJ’s decision to discredit Taylor’s testimony, see Ellison, 355
F.3d at 1275, the record does not support Taylor’s contention that the ALJ relied
primarily on the lack of continuing treatment in discrediting Taylor’s testimony.
Therefore, the ALJ properly applied the Eleventh Circuit’s pain standard, and his
failure to directly address Taylor’s explanation of the lack of continuing treatment
does not constitute reversible error or grounds for remand.
B. Dr. Moizzudin’s Testimony
Taylor next challenges the ALJ’s decision to give only little weight to the
opinion of Dr. Moizuddin, the sole source of medical opinion evidence on Taylor’s
functional capacity or on the ultimate issue of disability. Doc. 9 at 6. “In evaluating
medical opinions, the ALJ considers many factors, including the examining
relationship, the treatment relationship, whether the opinion is amply supported,
[and] whether the opinion is consistent with the record and the doctor’s
specialization.” Kelly v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 401 F. App’x 403, 407 (11th Cir.
2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d)). Here, the ALJ determined
that Dr. Moizuddin’s testimony that Taylor “is restricted to a very narrow range of
sedentary work” was “inconsistent with the detailed objective findings of [Dr.
Moizuddin’s] examination, which indicated that [Taylor] had normal strength,
reflexes, nerves, sensation, gait, and range of motion.” R. 15. Contrary to Taylor’s
contention, the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence.
As an initial matter, Dr. Moizzudin is a consultative examiner who examined
Taylor once. See R. 280-90; doc. 9 at 6. Thus, her opinion is not entitled to great
weight. See Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1160 (11th Cir.
2004) (citing McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987)); 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.927(c)(2) (explaining that greater weight is generally given to treating
sources over reports of individual examinations). Moreover, the ALJ properly
explained why he discredited Dr. Moizuddin’s testimony. Specifically, the ALJ
determined that Dr. Moizuddin’s testimony was inconsistent with her own
objective findings, as her examination yielded mostly normal findings, and she did
not identify the particular medical and clinical findings that supported her
testimony on Taylor’s limitations or explain why the largely normal results of her
examination supported the limitations she recommended. R. 15, 281-90; see
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1241 (11th Cir. 2004) (finding good cause
existed to reject testimony of treating physician where that testimony was
inconsistent with physician’s notes). Based on this inconsistency, the ALJ properly
discounted Dr. Moizzudin’s testimony. See Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159 (holding
that physician’s report “may be discounted when it is not accompanied by
objective medical evidence . . . .”). Accordingly, the ALJ correctly applied legal
standards in disregarding Dr. Moizzudin’s testimony.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s and Appeals
Council’s determination that Taylor is not disabled is supported by substantial
evidence, and that the ALJ and Appeals Council applied proper legal standards in
reaching their determinations. The Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED.
A separate order in accordance with this memorandum of decision will be entered.
DONE the 9th day of March, 2018.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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