Davidson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 2/12/2018. (KBB)
2018 Feb-12 PM 02:36
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Civil Action Number
Tiffany Davidson filed a petition under Section 205(g) of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ”) denial of disability insurance benefits, which has become the final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). For
the reasons explained below, the court affirms.
Davidson, a 26 year old woman, filed an application for disability insurance
benefits (DIB) on April 1, 2013, alleging a disability beginning January 26, 2013.
Doc. 7-6 at 2. SSA issued an initial denial letter on August 22, 2013, doc. 7-4 at
22-31, and Davidson timely requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on
April 29, 2015. Doc. 7-3 at 16-40. The ALJ issued an unfavorable opinion, doc.
7-4 at 36-48, and the SSA Appeals Council denied Davidson’s request for review,
doc. 7-3 at 2. Davidson timely filed this petition for review. Doc. 1.
Standard of Review
First, federal district courts review the SSA’s findings of fact under the
“substantial evidence” standard of review. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c); 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 Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (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
(internal citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must
affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings, even if the evidence preponderates
against the Commissioner. See id.
Credibility determinations are the province of the ALJ. Moore v. Barnhart,
405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005). However, “[t]he testimony of a treating
physician must ordinarily be given substantial or considerable weight unless good
cause is shown to the contrary,” and the failure of the Secretary “to specify what
weight is given to a treating physician’s opinion and any reason for giving it no
weight” constitutes reversible error. MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053
(11th Cir. 1986). Courts have found good cause to discount a treating physician’s
report when it is “not accompanied by objective medical evidence, . . . wholly
conclusory,” or “inconsistent with [the physician’s] own medical records.” Lewis
v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d
580, 583 (11th Cir. 1991). Reports filed by physicians “who do not examine the
claimant, taken alone, do not constitute substantial evidence on which to base an
administrative decision,” Spencer on Behalf of Spencer v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090,
1094 (11th Cir. 1985), and, as such, are “entitled to little weight if [they are]
contrary to the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician.”
Heckler, 776 F.2d 960, 962 (11th Cir. 1985). Likewise, the opinion of a “one-time
examiner” is also not entitled to any deference. McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617,
619 (11th Cir. 1987).
Second, federal courts review the SSA’s conclusions of law de novo,
Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622 (11th Cir.1987), and “[f]ailure to apply the correct
legal standards is grounds not for remand but, for reversal.” Lamb v. Bowen, 847
F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). No presumption attaches to either the ALJ’s
choice of legal standard or to the ALJ’s application of the correct legal standard to
the facts. Id.
Finally, reviewing courts have the power “to enter, upon the pleadings and
transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a
rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Statutory and Regulatory Framework
While the ALJ has a duty to develop a full and fair record, “the claimant
bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible
for producing evidence in support of his claim.” Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d
1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003). To qualify for DIB, 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. §§ 416(i)(I)(A), 423(d)(1)(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.” Id. at § 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
(1) whether the claimant is doing substantial gainful
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the impairment meets or is medically
equivalent to one listed by the Secretary;
(4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her
past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in
the national economy.
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).
The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ applied the five-step analysis for DIB claims, see McDaniel, 800
F.2d at 1030, and found that Davidson satisfied step one because she had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 26, 2013. Doc. 7-4 at 41. At
step two, the ALJ found that Davidson has the following severe impairments:
obesity and lumbar degenerative disc disease. Id. At step three, however, the ALJ
found that Davidson does not have an impairment or combination of impairments
that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20
CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and
404.1526). Id. at 42. Finally, at step four, the ALJ found that Davidson’s residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) allowed her to perform her past work. Id. at 42-45.
As a result, the ALJ denied Davidson’s claim.
The sole issue Davidson presents for review is whether the ALJ committed
reversible error by purportedly failing to develop a full and fair record. Doc. 11 at
9-10. Specifically, Davidson asserts that the ALJ “improperly relied on imaging
from 2011 to support his conclusion that Davidson is not presently disabled and
has not been disabled since 2013” and had a duty to order updated imaging. Doc.
11 at 10-11 (citing Sims v. Astrue, 2010 WL 2952686, at *4 (M.D. Ala. July 26,
2010)). Based on the record before the ALJ, the court disagrees with Davidson.
As the Eleventh Circuit has held, “[e]ven though Social Security courts are
inquisitorial, not adversarial, in nature, claimants must establish that they are
eligible for benefits,” and an ALJ is not required to order additional testing “as
long as the record contains sufficient evidence for the administrative law judge to
make an informed decision.” See Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d
1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007). This was precisely the case here, where the ALJ
denied Davidson’s claim based on his findings that: (1) Davidson’s impairments
did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the Listings; and (2)
Davidson has the RFC to perform her past work. Doc. 7-4 at 42-45. The record
supports both of these findings.
A. The substantial evidence supports the finding that Davidson’s
impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the Listings.1
According to the ALJ, Davidson’s spinal condition fails to meet or
medically equal Listing 1.04.2 Specifically, the ALJ found that “the record shows
no evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal
stenosis resulting in an inability to ambulate effectively,” and that “[d]uring her
consultative examination, [Davidson] displayed a normal gait and was able to
See 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.
Listing 1.04 involves “Disorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal
arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, vertebral
fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord.
A. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of
pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle
weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is
involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine); or
B. Spinal arachnoiditis, confirmed by an operative note or pathology report of tissue
biopsy, or by appropriate medically acceptable imaging, manifested by severe burning
or painful dysesthesia, resulting in the need for changes in position or posture more than
once every 2 hours; or
C. Lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication, established by findings on
appropriate medically acceptable imaging, manifested by chronic nonradicular pain and
weakness, and resulting in inability to ambulate effectively.
See 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.
ambulate effectively.” Doc. 7-4 at 42. In making this determination, the ALJ gave
great weight to the consultative physician, Dr. Jonathan Ledet. Doc. 7-4 at 44.
Davidson disagrees with this finding and contends that the ALJ erred by giving
great weight to Dr. Ledet. Unfortunately for Davidson, the record supports the
Dr. Ledet examined Davidson once and reported that Davidson “had no
difficulty getting on and off [the] examination table, [getting] up and out of [her]
chair,” or dressing herself, required no assistance to ambulate, displayed a normal
gait and a full range of motion in her cervical and lumbar spinal areas, and
performed heel-walks, toe-walks, and squats without difficulty. Doc. 7-8 at 23-24.
Overall, Dr. Ledet opined that Davidson’s examination was consistent with “low
back pain” causing “minimal to moderate” limitations. Doc. 7-8 at 24.
Generally, as a non-treating “one-time examiner,” Dr. Ledet’s opinion is
only entitled to deference if it is consistent with the record. See McSwain, 814
F.2d at 619. There is no error here, however, because a review of the record shows
that Dr. Ledet’s opinion is, in fact, consistent with the record as a whole. For
example, Davidson sought medical treatment several times in 2013 and 2014 for
various ailments unrelated to this appeal, and none of the medical professionals she
saw noted any major spinal issues in their notes. During this time, Davidson
visited Walker Baptist Medical Center on five occasions, and each of the five
physicians who treated her noted that her musculoskeletal examination
demonstrated a “normal range of motion.” Doc. 7-9 at 4-62. Davidson also visited
Capstone Rural Health Center twice in 2014, where a Certified Registered Nurse
Practitioner, Lindsey Jones, reported on both occasions that her musculoskeletal
system appeared “normal.” 3 Doc. 7-9 at 63-67. Put simply, none of the medical
evidence during the relevant period is inconsistent with Dr. Ledet’s findings.
The ALJ also followed the correct legal standards in determining whether
Davidson’s impairments satisfy any of the listings. In accordance with SSR 02-1p,
he considered whether the cumulative effect of Davidson’s obesity, in combination
with her degenerative disc disease, would satisfy or medically equal one of the
listings. See 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ found that “although
obesity may contribute” to her back pain, “no treating or examining physician has
placed any restrictions on [her] due to [her] obesity,” doc. 7-4 at 44, and explained
that he found Davidson’s pain testimony not credible because it is inconsistent
with the other evidence in the record, doc. 7-4 at 43. 4 The substantial evidence
Under the regulations that existed at the time Davidson filed her claim, nurse
practitioners were not considered “acceptable medical sources,” but ALJs were nonetheless
permitted to consider their opinions as evidence. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527.
In making this determination, the ALJ correctly applied the standard created in Hand v.
Heckler, 761 F2.d 1545 (11th Cir. 1985), which requires “evidence of an underlying medical
condition,” and either “objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain
arising from that condition” or evidence that the “objectively determined medical condition is of
such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.” See Holt v.
Barnhart, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991).
supports this finding, and Davidson has not cited any parts of the record that are
inconsistent with the overall conclusion that she has more than a moderate amount
of back pain, which may be slightly compounded by her obesity. The court’s
review of the record reveals substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision
with regard to step 3 of the disability analysis. See McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030.
Accordingly, this portion of the ALJ’s opinion is due to be affirmed. See 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c); Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529.
B. The substantial evidence supports the finding that Davidson has the
residual functional capacity to perform her past work.
The record also supports the ALJ’s finding regarding Davidson’s RFC. The
ALJ relied on the opinion of an independent vocational expert, James Hare, in
deciding that Davidson’s functional limitations do not prevent her from performing
jobs as a cake icer and a sales clerk that she has held in the past. Doc. 7-4 at 44-45.
Indeed, although Hare testified that, among other things, Davidson “should avoid
any climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and any more than occasional climbing
of ramps or stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling,” he
opined that these limitations would not prevent Davidson from returning to work
as a cake icer or a sales clerk. Doc. 7-3 at 36-37. Moreover, Hare added that, even
assuming that Davidson could only perform work while sitting down, her
functional capacity would allow her to perform many other jobs in the national and
state economy. Doc. 7-3 at 37. There is nothing before the court that refutes these
findings. In fact, Davidson does not direct the court to any evidence in the record
that contradicts Hare’s testimony or the ALJ’s findings with regard to her RFC.
Consequently, this portion of the ALJ’s opinion is also due to be affirmed. See
McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030.
Consistent with this opinion, there is substantial evidence to support
the ALJ’s conclusions.
Accordingly, the Secretary’s decision is due to be
DONE the 12th day of February, 2018.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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