Booth v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 9/22/2015. (KEK)
2015 Sep-22 AM 09:17
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
WENDY GAYLE BOOTH,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Case No.: 7:14-cv-1281-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Wendy Gayle Booth
seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Booth’s claims for a period of disability,
disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. After careful
review, the Court affirms the Commissioner’s decision.
Ms. Booth applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits,
and supplemental security income benefits on March 22, 2011. (Doc. 6-6, pp. 4,
6). Ms. Booth alleges that her disability began on February 27, 2011. (Doc. 6-6, p.
2). The Commissioner denied Ms. Booth’s claims on June 28, 2011, (Doc. 6-5, p.
2), and Ms. Booth requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
(Doc. 6-5, p. 9). Like the Commissioner, the ALJ denied Ms. Booth’s application
for benefits. (Doc. 6-3, p. 21). On May 3, 2014, the Appeals Council declined Ms.
Booth’s request for review. (Doc. 6-3, p. 2). As a result, the Commissioner’s
decision became final. (Doc. 6-3, p. 2). That decision is a proper candidate for
this Court’s judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 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,
reweigh the evidence,” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations
and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision, the
Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s
findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 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
Ms. Booth carries the burden of demonstrating that she is disabled as that
term is defined by the Social Security Act. Russell v. Astrue, 331 Fed. Appx. 678,
680 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 918 (11th Cir. 1984)).
To determine whether a claimant has established that she is disabled, an ALJ
follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ examines:
(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. Booth has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since February 27, 2011. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). The ALJ determined
that Ms. Booth suffers from the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis,
lumbar degenerative disc disease, sleep apnea, hypertension, type II diabetes,
asthmatic bronchitis, and obesity.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 26). Nevertheless, the ALJ
concluded that Ms. Booth does not have an impairment or 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. 27).
The ALJ also determined that Ms. Booth retains the following residual
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant is
precluded from climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; however, she can
occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and
crawl. The claimant can sustain no more than occasional exposure to
extreme cold or heat or to irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases,
chemicals, poorly ventilated areas. The claimant should avoid any
exposure to unprotected heights and the operation or control of
hazardous moving machinery.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 28). Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Booth is able to
work jobs that she previously has held as a cashier, a manager in the fast food
service, or a fast food worker, as those jobs are classified and consistent with the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The ALJ noted that Ms. Booth ultimately may
not perform the exact tasks that she previously performed, but she still may hold
the same types of jobs. (Doc. 6-3, p. 33). The ALJ relied in part on the testimony
of a vocational expert in reaching his conclusion that Ms. Booth is capable of
performing her past relevant work. (Doc. 6-3, p. 33). Accordingly, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Booth is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 33).
Ms. Booth argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision
because the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinion of Dr. Bruce Pava, M.D., an
examining physician. (Doc. 8, pp. 7-8). The Court disagrees.
An ALJ must consider every medical opinion.
See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). “[T]he 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) (quoting Winschel, 631 F.3d
at 1179)). In the absence of sufficient particularity, the Court “cannot determine
whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision….”
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 518 Fed. Appx. 875, 877 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Winschel,
631 F.3d at 1179). Though an ALJ typically gives an examining physician’s
opinion more weight than the opinion of a non-examining physician, the ALJ owes
no deference to the opinion of a one-time examining physician such as Dr. Pava.
See Eyre v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 586 Fed. Appx. 521, 523 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing
McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987)); see also Gray v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 550 Fed Appx. 850, 854 (11th Cir. 2013). “It is not  unlawful to
discredit the opinion of an examining or treating physician, so long as the [ALJ]
specif[ies] what weight is given to a treating [or examining] physician’s opinion
and any reason for giving it no weight.” Russell, 331 Fed Appx. at 681 (internal
In this case, the ALJ considered the opinions of three medical professionals
in reaching his decision:
(1) Dr. Bruce M. Pava, M.D., an examining physician
who saw Ms. Booth on one occasion, (Doc. 6-8, pp. 52-57); (2) Dr. Robert Estock,
M.D., an examining source who performed a psychiatric evaluation of Ms. Booth
on June 27, 2011, (Doc. 6-8, pp. 58-71); and (3) Dr. Robert Heilpern, M.D., a nonexamining consultant who completed a physical residual functional capacity
assessment for Ms. Booth on June 27, 2011, (Doc. 6-8, pp. 72-79). (See Doc. 6-3,
Dr. Pava conducted a physical examination of Ms. Booth on May 24, 2011.
(Doc. 6-8, p. 52). Based on this examination, Dr. Pava observed:
Gait is normal. Tandem gait is normal. The patient is able to walk on
toes and heels and rise from a deep squatting position without
difficulty. The patient has full range of motion of all joints,
extremities, and spine. There is no obvious joint deformity or
(Doc. 6-8, pp. 55-56). Dr. Pava also found that Ms. Booth’s pulmonary function
studies were “[e]ssentially normal.”
(Doc. 6-8, p. 56).
After reviewing the
medical evidence of record, Dr. Pava concluded that Ms. Booth’s “history and
physical examination show no contraindication to work requiring mild exertion.”
(Doc. 6-8, p. 56).
The ALJ assigned Dr. Pava’s opinion “partial weight.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 32).
The ALJ explained that he “considered the opinion of consultative examiner,
Bruce Myles Pava, M.D., and assigns his opinion partial weight, as [Dr. Pava]
noted that the claimant’s history and physical examination show no medical
contraindication to work requiring mild exertion. ‘Mild exertion’ is not a defined
term.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 32). The Court finds that the ALJ clearly specified the weight
he accorded Dr. Pava’s opinion, and the ALJ explained his reason for assigning
that weight. The Court finds no error in the ALJ’s decision to accord Dr. Pava’s
opinion partial weight.
Moreover, even if the ALJ erred by failing to provide a more detailed
explanation for his decision to give Dr. Pava’s opinion partial weight, any potential
error was harmless for a number of reasons. See Denomme, 518 Fed. Appx. at
878. First, the ALJ was not required to defer to Dr. Pava’s opinion because Dr.
Pava examined Ms. Booth only once. See Id.; Eyre, 586 Fed. Appx. at 523. In
addition, the ALJ did consider and give weight to Dr. Pava’s s findings and
observations. Indeed, the ALJ cited Dr. Pava’s “observations of normal gait,
normal pulses and reflexes, and an absence of edema” in determining that Ms.
Booth does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that equals one
of the listed impairments from the regulations.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 27).
determining Ms. Booth’s RFC, the ALJ cited Dr. Pava’s finding that “although
[Ms. Booth] gave only fair effort , she had an essentially normal [pulmonary]
study.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). The ALJ simply decided to give Dr. Pava’s opinion
partial weight because Dr. Pava used an undefined term to describe the level of
exertion that Ms. Booth could use at work.
And even if the ALJ had accorded Dr. Pava’s opinion substantial weight,
doing so would not necessarily have led the ALJ to conclude that Ms. Booth is
(See Doc. 8, pp. 7-8). Ms. Booth argues that Dr. Pava’s opinion
establishes a disabling impairment by limiting her to work requiring no more than
“mild exertion.” (Doc. 8, p. 7). Ms. Booth asserts that limitation precludes her
from all work because “even sedentary work requires lifting, carrying, and
standing requirements beyond ‘mild exertion.’” (Doc. 8, p. 7). In support of this
argument, Ms. Booth cites 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), regulations
which contain identical definitions that read as follows:
Sedentary work involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and
occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and
small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which
involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often
necessary in carrying out job duties. Jobs are sedentary if walking
and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). This definition does not mention the
term “mild exertion,” and it appears to be conjecture on Ms. Booth’s part that mild
exertion precludes even sedentary work because none of the listed activities in the
definition of sedentary work obviously exceeds the possible meaning of the term
“mild exertion.” 1 As a result, Ms. Booth’s argument does not persuade the Court
that Dr. Pava’s opinion establishes that she is disabled as defined by the Social
Ms. Booth also contends that the ALJ erred by failing to contact Dr. Pava to
ask him to clarify his opinion and the meaning of the term “mild exertion.” She
cites 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1519p(b) and 416.919p(b) in support of her argument.
(Doc. 8, p. 8). The regulations that Ms. Booth cites are identical and provide that
“[i]f the report [of the consultative examination] is inadequate or incomplete, [the
The phrase “mild exertion” also is not mentioned in the regulatory definition of “light
Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting
or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted
may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking
or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and
pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or
wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of these
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).
ALJ], will contact the medical source who performed the consultative examination,
give an explanation of [his] evidentiary needs, and ask that the medical source
furnish the missing information or prepare a revised report.”
20 C.F.R. §§
404.1519p(b) and 416.919p(b).
Beyond the ALJ’s comment that “[m]ild exertion is not a defined term,”
there is no indication that the ALJ found Dr. Pava’s report to be inadequate or
incomplete. (See Doc. 6-3, p. 32). Indeed, a consultative examination report, such
as Dr. Pava’s report, is not considered incomplete if it does not include a statement
about what the claimant can still do despite her impairments.
20 C.F.R. §§
404.1519n(c)(6) and 416.919n(c)(6); see also Davison v. Astrue, 370 Fed. Appx.
995, 998 (11th Cir. 2010) (rejecting a claimant’s argument that an examining
physician’s report was incomplete because it failed to explain a prohibition against
“heavy lifting”) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.919n(c)(6)). Accordingly, Dr. Pava’s
report was not inadequate or incomplete for failing to define “mild exertion.”
Because Dr. Pava’s report was not inadequate or incomplete, the ALJ did not have
to contact Dr. Pava to ask that Dr. Pava supplement or clarify his report. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1519n(c) and 416.919n(c); Davison, 370 Fed. Appx. at 998.
Although the ALJ has a responsibility to develop the record, “the burden is
on the claimant to show that she is disabled and, therefore, she is responsible for
producing evidence to support her application. McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 Fed
Appx. 410, 418 (11th Cir. 2006).2 With respect to an ALJ’s responsibility to
develop the record by re-contacting examining physicians, the Eleventh Circuit has
In making disability determinations, the Commissioner considers
whether the evidence is consistent and sufficient to make a
determination. If it is not consistent, the Commissioner weighs the
evidence to reach her decision. If, after weighing the evidence, the
Commissioner cannot reach a determination, then she will seek
additional information or recontact the physicians.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 138 Fed. Appx. 268, 270-71 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)). Here, the evidence was consistent and sufficient for the
ALJ to make an RFC finding and a determination that Ms. Booth was not disabled;
therefore, the ALJ had no duty to seek additional information from the examining
In making his RFC finding, the ALJ considered and discussed the medical
evidence of record, both favorable and unfavorable, the opinions of medical
professionals, and Ms. Booth’s subjective allegations of pain. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 2832). The ALJ then fashioned an RFC that included appropriate and credible
restrictions based on his review of the evidence.
Thus, substantial evidence
In this case, the ALJ tried to develop the record by asking that Ms. Booth submit several
additional medical records that the ALJ considered necessary to a determination of disability,
and by allotting Ms. Booth and her attorney extra time to submit the requested records. (Doc. 63, pp. 70-71).
supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Ms. Booth could engage in a limited range of
For the reasons discussed above, the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision is
supported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ applied proper legal standards.
The Court will not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the
Accordingly, the Court affirms the Commissioner’s decision
denying Ms. Booth’s claim for benefits. The Court will enter a separate final
judgment consistent with this memorandum opinion.
DONE and ORDERED this September 22, 2015.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?