Robinson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 9/29/2014. (PSM)
2014 Sep-29 PM 03:40
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF
Civil Action Number
Plaintiff Dawn Robinson brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the
Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the adverse
decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which has become the final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). This
court finds that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Thus, the
court will AFFIRM the decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Robinson protectively filed her application for Title II disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on October 26, 2010, alleging a
disability onset date of January 1, 2010, (R. 136-137), due to the effects of neck
and back problems, anxiety, panic attacks and depression. (R. 165). After the SSA
denied her application on December 1, 2010, (R. 38-39), Robinson requested a
hearing. (R. 49-50). At the time of the hearing on May 8, 2012, Robinson was
thirty-nine years old, (R. 21, 92), and had completed two years of college. (R.
165). Robinson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1,
2010, the alleged onset date. (R. 13).
The ALJ denied Robinson's claim on May 17, 2012, (R. 12-16), which
became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused
to grant review on September 13, 2012. (R. 1-6). Robinson then filed this action
pursuant to section 1631 of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). 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
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work;
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the
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 ALJ’s Decision
In performing the Five Step sequential analysis, the ALJ initially determined
that Robinson met the insured status requirements of the Act through December
(R. 13). Then the ALJ found that Robinson had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2010, the alleged onset of her
disability, and therefore met Step One. (R. 13). Next, the ALJ acknowledged
Robinson’s medically determinable impairments of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Id. However, the ALJ concluded that Robinson did not satisfy Step Two because
she “[did] not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments” because
she “[did] not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has
significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform
basic work related activities for 12 consecutive months.” (R. 13). After answering
Step Two in the negative, the ALJ determined that Robinson “ha[d] not been under
a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2010, through
the date of this decision.” (R. 16).
The court now turns to Robinson’s contentions that the ALJ erred by (1)
rejecting the opinion of. John R. Goff, Ph.D. and (2) finding that Robinson
suffered from no severe impairments. Doc. 8 at 1. The court will examine each
contention in turn.
A. Dr. Goff’s Opinion
Robinson first contends that the ALJ erred by rejecting the psychological
evaluation of Dr. Goff. Doc. 8 at 8. Robinson specifically contends that the ALJ
failed to “cite sufficient reasons to reject Dr. Goff’s opinion, particularly in light of
his admission that Dr. Goff is a ‘highly qualified expert in Social Security
disability evaluation’” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(f)(2)(i). Doc. 8 at 10. Dr. Goff
conducted a psychological evaluation of Robinson at the request of her attorney on
January 26, 2012.
During the examination, Dr. Goff reviewed
Robinson’s medical records, observed Robinson’s behavior and mental status, and
administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV),
which revealed a Full Scale IQ of 80. (R. 454-58). Based on his examination, Dr.
Goff opined that Robinson “was able to understand, carry out, and follow simple
and moderately complex instructions,” found that “[Robinson’s] difficulties arise
in situations that are anxiety provoking,” and diagnosed Robinson as having
“Generalized anxiety disorder,” “Panic disorder,” and “Adjustment disorder with
depressed mood.” (R. 458). Dr. Goff concluded that “[Robinson’s] medical and
psychological problems interfere with her ability to deal with stressors and
pressures of the workplace” and that Robinson’s “psychological condition
represents a severe impairment.” (R. 458-59). Dr. Goff also completed a Medical
Source Opinion Form (Mental) indicating that Robinson had marked and extreme
limitations in preforming several work-related mental activities. (R.460-61).
As a non-treating physician, Dr. Goff’s opinion is not entitled to controlling
weight under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Consequently, the ALJ had to consider
several factors to determine the weight, if any, to give Dr. Goff’s opinions. These
factors include whether Dr. Goff presented medical evidence and explanation
supporting his opinion, and whether his opinion is consistent with the record as a
whole. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). Moreover, the ALJ “may reject the opinion of
any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.” Bloodworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir.1983). Indeed, even a treating physician's
opinions, which are entitled to more deference than those of Dr. Goff, may be
rejected if the ALJ has “good cause.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440
Here, after acknowledging Dr. Goff’s qualification as a “highly qualified
expert in Social Security disability evaluation,” the ALJ considered these factors
and afforded “little weight” to Dr. Goff’s psychological evaluation. (R. 14-15). In
reaching his decision, the ALJ provided multiple reasons that are supported by
substantial evidence and constitute good cause for rejecting Dr. Goff’s opinions.
Specifically, because the ALJ “may reject the opinion of any physician when the
evidence supports a contrary conclusion,” Bloodworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233,
1240 (11th Cir. 1983), the ALJ properly considered that Dr. Goff’s “assessment is
longitudinally inconsistent with the record as a whole, and represents a one-time
anomaly rather than a sharp and sudden decline in [Robinson’s] condition.” (R.
15). Additionally, the ALJ properly considered that Dr. Goff’s evaluation was
based on “only a single visit,” (R.30), because “[g]enerally, [the ALJ] give[s] more
weight to opinions from treating sources.” 20 C.F.R.§§ 404.1527(c)(2),
416.927(c)(2). Accordingly, the ALJ properly relied on Robinson’s treating
physicians’ medical records in finding that Dr. Goff’s opinions based on a single
evaluation were entitled to little weight. (R.15). As the ALJ observed, Robinson’s
treating physicians indicated that “[Robinson’s] symptoms were only mild in
nature” and “would not cause more than mild limitations in any area of
functioning.” (R. 15). In fact, progress notes from West Alabama Mental Health
Center indicate that Robinson was making “moderate progress” and that she was
able to manage her symptoms. (R. 416).
Next, the ALJ properly found that Dr. Goff’s assessment was inconsistent
with Robinson’s work history because Robinson “worked for many years with her
allegedly disabling condition.” (R. 14-15); see Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440 (“We have
found ‘good cause’ to exist where the doctor's opinion was not bolstered by the
evidence.”) (citation omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4) (“[T]he more consistent
an opinion is with the record as a whole, the more weight we will give to that
opinion.”). Significantly, the ALJ noted that, “although [Robinson] was only
working part-time at Taco Casa in 2011, she had a desire to increase her working
hours” to increase her income. (R. 15).
The ALJ also properly considered that Dr. Goff’s assessment is inconsistent
with Robinson’s ability to perform her regular activities of daily living and found
that Robinson “preform[s] a full and complete day of activities and care.” (R. 15).
For example, the ALJ observed that
[Robinson] works with her son with his homework and then
prepares dinner for her family. She has no problems with her ability to
care for personal care. She performs the housework, such as cleaning,
ironing and doing the laundry. She can drive a vehicle, leave her
house, and venture out by herself. She independently shops for clothes
for her children and groceries for her household. The claimant can pay
bills, count change, and handle a checking and savings account. She
reported that she enjoys watching television, reading the newspaper
and reading magazines. She indicated that she talks to her mother on
the phone daily and even attends church occasionally. In a word, the
claimant does perform a full and complete day of activities and care.
(R. 15). Finally, the ALJ considered gaps in Robinson’s treatment for her allegedly
disabling mental impairment, (R. 140), and observed that after Robinson sought
treatment at West Alabama Mental Health Center from September 2010 until
March 2011, the record shows no further treatment until she presented at Indian
Rivers Mental Health Center on September 22, 2011, (R. 13-14). Good cause
exists to reject a physician’s opinion when the medical records showed infrequent
medical visits. See Petteway v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 353 F. App’x 287, 290 (11th
In a nutshell, the ALJ considered the factors set forth in the regulations and
articulated “good cause” for giving Dr. Goff’s opinions little weight. Based on the
court’s review of the record, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding.
B. Severe Impairment
Robinson’s final contention is that the ALJ erred in finding that she had no
severe impairments even though “the evidence shows [Robinson’s] anxiety and
depression are severe impairments.”
Doc. 8 at 12.
“An impairment or
combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the
claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1521(a). A claimant’s mental impairments are evaluated based on how they
impact four functional areas: activities of daily living; social functioning;
concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Cuthbert v.
Astrue, 303 Fed. App'x 697, 699 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §
The regulations provide that if “the degree of [a claimant’s]
limitation in the first three functional areas as ‘none’ or ‘mild’ and ‘none’ in the
fourth area, [the ALJ] will generally conclude that your impairment(s) is not
“When we rate the degree of limitation in the first three functional areas (activities of daily living; social
functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace), we will use the following five-point scale: None, mild,
moderate, marked, and extreme. When we rate the degree of limitation in the fourth functional area (episodes of
decompensation), we will use the following four-point scale: None, one or two, three, four or more.” 20 C.F.R. §
severe, unless the evidence otherwise indicates that there is more than a minimal
limitation in your ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(1).
Here, the ALJ found that Robinson had only mild limitations in her
activities of daily living and social functioning, no limitations in her concentration,
persistence and pace, and no episodes of decompensation. (R. 14-15). Therefore,
consistent with the regulations, the ALJ found “that there was no evidence
suggesting that the claimant’s anxiety causes any more than minimal functional
limitations that would affect her ability to perform basic work related activities,”
and, thus, concluded that Robinson did not suffer from a severe mental
impairment. (R. 13). In reaching this decision, the ALJ considered Robinson’s
mental condition and found that it causes no more than mild limitations in her
activities of daily living:
[Robinson] is still able to care for her two minor children, ages four
and ten. She prepares meals on a daily basis for her children, readies
her ten-year old son for school, places him on the school bus, and then
spends the rest of her day carrying for her four-year-old daughter.
She works with her son with his homework, and then prepares dinner
for her family. She has no problems with her ability to care for
personal care. She performs the housework, such as cleaning, ironing
and doing the laundry. She can drive a vehicle . . . She independently
shops for clothes for her children and groceries for her household . . .
In a word, [Robinson] does perform a full and complete day of
activities and care.
(R. 15). The ALJ considered Robinson’s social activities, which included talking
to her mother on the phone daily and occasionally attending church, and found that
these activities demonstrate no more than mild limitations in social functioning. (R.
15, 152). Indeed, Robinson’s mother confirmed that Robinson attended church
“once or twice a month,” (R. 144), and that Robinson shops in stores for “food,
clothing, and household items.” (R. 143). Substantial evidence supports an ALJ’s
finding of no severe mental impairments when, as here, the claimant “could carry
out many daily living activities, such as preparing food, shopping, and carrying for
[herself]” and also “[the claimant’s] social functioning was not severely impacted
by [her] depression as [s]he was able to attend church, have visitors, and socialize
with [her] family by telephone.” Cuthbert v. Astrue, 303 F. App'x 697, 699 (11th
Cir. 2008). Finally, the ALJ considered the findings of the state agency medical
consultant, who found no episodes of decompensation and expressed an opinion
consistent with the findings of Robinson’s treating physicians, indicating that
Robinson had no difficulties in maintaining concentration persistence, or pace. (R.
Ultimately, the ALJ properly considered Robinson’s mental impairments
consistent with the law, and set forth multiple reasons, all of which are supported
by substantial evidence for finding Robinson had no severe mental impairments.
Consequently, the court finds the ALJ committed no error.
Based on the foregoing, this court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Robinson is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the
ALJ applied proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the
Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED. The court will enter a separate
order to that effect simultaneously.
DONE the 29th day of September, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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