Thomas v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala on 3/3/2017. (KEK)
2017 Mar-03 AM 09:54
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Case No.: 7:14-CV-2486-MHH
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Robert Thomas seeks
judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
The Commissioner denied his claims for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After careful review, the
Court affirms the Commissioner’s decision.
Mr. Thomas applied for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on February 14, 2012. (Doc. 7-6, pp. 2-14). Mr. Thomas alleged that his disability began on February 2, 2009. (Doc. 76, pp. 2, 9). Mr. Thomas later asked to amend his alleged onset date to October 29,
2011. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 49-50; Doc. 7-6, p. 30). The Commissioner initially denied
Mr. Thomas’s claims on June 11, 2012. (Doc. 7-5, pp. 6-15). Mr. Thomas
requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 7-5, pp. 189). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on December 20, 2013. (Doc. 7-3, pp.
22-38).1 On November 17, 2014, the Appeals Council declined Mr. Thomas’s
request for review (Doc. 7-3, 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) and
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,
The ALJ issued another unfavorable decision on October 28, 2011. (Doc. 7-4, pp. 5-16). Mr.
Thomas does not challenge that decision in his brief.
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 the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence, 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 he 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 Mr. Thomas has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since October 29, 2011, the amended alleged onset date. (Doc. 73, p. 25). The ALJ determined that Mr. Thomas suffers from the following severe
impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with anxiety and depression;
panic disorder with depression; osteoarthritis; degenerative disc disease of the
lumbar spine (DDD); substance abuse addiction, to wit: alcohol, cocaine, and
cannabis; and obesity. (Doc. 7-3, p. 25). In addition, the ALJ found that Mr.
Thomas suffers from the following non-severe impairments: hypertension, sleeprelated breathing disorders, hearing problems corrected with a hearing aid, and
sinusitis. (Doc. 7-3, p. 25). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ
concluded that Mr. Thomas 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. 7-3, p. 26).
Next, the ALJ determined that if Mr. Thomas stopped his substance abuse,
he has the RFC:
to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and
416.967(c) except the claimant can sit at least six hours over the
course of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can stand and/or walk
up to two hours each day without interruption. The claimant can
stand and/or walk at least a total of six hours over the course of an
eight-hour workday. The claimant can frequently use his upper
extremities to reach overhead; he is not otherwise limited with his
upper extremities. The claimant can frequently use his lower
extremities for pushing, pulling, and the operation of controls. The
claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, poles, or scaffolds; and can
frequently climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can frequently
balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; and can occasionally crawl. The
claimant can occasionally work while exposed to dusts, odors, gases,
and fumes, but the claimant cannot work in poorly ventilated areas.
The claimant can occasionally work in humidity, wetness, and
extreme temperatures. The claimant cannot work at unprotected
heights or operate hazardous machinery. The claimant can frequently
operate motorized vehicles and can occasionally work while subject
As for mental limitations, the claimant possesses the concentration,
persistence and pace necessary to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions; can perform simple, routine, and repetitive
work activity. Further, the claimant can attend to all customary work
pressures over the course of an eight-hour workday with the
following exceptions: he can perform production rate work.
However, he cannot perform work that requires him to respond to
rapid and/or multiple frequent demands. Changes in his work activity
and/or work settings must be infrequent and gradually introduced.
The claimant can respond appropriately to supervision; however, he
is better suited for and can perform work requiring only occasional
supervision. He can frequently interact with co-workers, so long as
interaction is less than intensive. Finally, the claimant can frequently
interact with the public, so long as the interaction is casual.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 36).
Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Thomas is not able to
perform his past relevant work as a grinder.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 33). Relying on
testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national
economy that Mr. Thomas can perform if he stopped the substance abuse,
including meat clerk; driver, helper, sales route; food service worker/hospital aide;
and hand packager (Doc. 7-3, pp. 37-38). Accordingly, “[b]ecause the substance
abuse disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of the
disability,” the ALJ determined that Mr. Thomas has not been under a disability
within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 7-3, p. 38).
Mr. Thomas argues that he is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision
because (1) the ALJ’s finding that he could perform work at the medium exertional
level is not supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the ALJ should have found
him disabled under Grid Rule 201.10. The Court addresses each argument in turn.
The ALJ’s finding that Mr. Thomas could perform work at the
medium exertional level is supported by substantial evidence.
A residual functional capacity or RFC is an ALJ’s assessment of an
applicant’s ability to perform work activities on a sustained basis despite the
limitations that the applicant’s impairments create. Maffia v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
291 Fed. Appx. 261, 263 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)). The
determination of an applicant’s residual functional capacity is within the authority
of the ALJ, and “the ALJ considers all of the evidence in the record in determining
the claimant’s RFC.” Himes v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 585 Fed. Appx. 758, 764
(11th Cir. 2014). Here, the ALJ found that Mr. Thomas has the RFC to perform
medium work with a number of limitations that account for Mr. Thomas’s physical
and mental impairments. (Doc. 7-3, p. 36). Medium work is defined as “lifting no
more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing
up to 25 pounds.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c). If an individual can perform medium
work, the individual also can perform sedentary and light work. Id. 2
In making his RFC determination, the ALJ thoroughly reviewed the medical
evidence and the medical opinions in the administrative record. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 2438). For example, the ALJ examined Mr. Thomas’s January 2012 treatment notes
from the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center. (Doc. 7-3, p. 29). During this visit, Mr.
Thomas reported mild back pain lasting at most 30 minutes at a time and reported
to his physician that a muscle relaxer and NSAIDs alleviated the pain. (Doc. 7-10,
p. 97). The ALJ noted that Mr. Thomas denied any radiation of the symptoms,
numbness, tingling or weakness. (Doc. 7-10, p. 97). A lumbar spine X-ray
showed that Mr. Thomas had “mild [degenerative disc disease] . . . at L5-S1, with
slight disc space narrowing.”
(Doc. 7-10, p. 99). The X-ray revealed “chronic
appearing subchondral sclerosis at the left sacroiliac joint, unchanged” and a small
BB type pellet within the anterior abdominal soft tissues. (Doc. 7-10, p. 99). Mr.
Thomas’s gait was normal, he displayed no scoliosis, and his range of motion in
Sedentary work is defined as “lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting
or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools.” 20 C.F.R. § 1567(a). “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 met.” Id. Light work is defined as “lifting
no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10
pounds. . . a job is in 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 or pulling of arm or leg controls.”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). “[T]he full range of light work also requires standing or walking, off
and on, for a total of approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. Sitting may occur
intermittently during the remaining time.” Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-10, 1983 WL 31251,
his lumbar spine was “very mildly limited” with flexion and extension. (Doc. 710, pp. 99-100).
Dr. Tatiana Lamia recommended canceling a scheduled MRI of Mr.
Thomas’s spine because “[t]his is not indicated at this time as it will not change
our management.” (Doc. 7-10, p. 101). Dr. Lamia stated that Mr. Thomas should
continue to treat his back pain with naproxen; she also recommended that Mr.
Thomas take Flexeril “but only for 5 day intervals when he has a bad flare up.
Should not be used indefinitely. . . in patient with [history of] substance abuse and
only mild back pain lasting longest 30 minutes at a time.” (Doc. 7-10, p. 101). Dr.
Lamia also recommended physical therapy sessions.
The ALJ reviewed Mr. Thomas’s physical therapy reports from early 2012.
(Doc. 7-3, p. 29).
During a session on January 23, 2012, the physical therapist
noted that Mr. Thomas reported a five-year history of intermittent lower back pain
which limited the distance he could walk comfortably. (Doc. 7-10, p. 53). Mr.
Thomas reported that his pain level was a three out of ten. (Doc. 7-10, p. 54). The
physical therapist observed that Mr. Thomas had normal muscle tone, good
coordination, and did not require the use of an assistive device. (Doc. 7-10, pp. 5354). The physical therapist recommended stretching and stabilization exercises
one to two times per week for up to three weeks. (Doc. 7-10, p. 55). The therapist
explained that Mr. Thomas demonstrated “good” rehabilitation potential. (Doc. 78
10, p. 55).
At the next physical therapy appointment on January 30, 2012, Mr. Thomas
felt decreased pain with modalities and exercise and reported to the therapist that
the exercises he performed on his own helped with the intermittent pain located in
his right lower back. (Doc. 7-10, p. 26). At the end of his session, Mr. Thomas
rated his pain as a two to three out of ten. (Doc. 7-10, p. 26). At his last physical
therapy appointment on February 6, 2012, Mr. Thomas rated his pain as a two out
of ten and showed overall improvement, although the pain still limited his
functional mobility and the distance he could comfortably walk. (Doc. 7-9, p. 85).
In January 2012, Mr. Thomas was screened for vocational rehabilitation.
(Doc. 7-10, pp. 91-96). Mr. Thomas expressed interest in working as a machine
operator within a factory. (Doc. 7-10, pp. 91, 93). Following a review of the
record and an interview, the vocational rehabilitation specialist found that Mr.
Thomas had no physical or mental limitations affecting his ability to function in
the rehabilitation program. (Doc. 7-10, p. 94). The nurse practitioner and staff
physician cleared Mr. Thomas for work programs with no limitations that same
month. (Doc. 7-11, p. 44). Mr. Thomas completed his vocational rehabilitation
plan in February 2012. (Doc. 7-9, pp. 21-27).
Mr. Thomas sought medical treatment again in October 2012 and reported
adequate back pain control with his NSAIDs. (Doc. 7-17, p. 20). In March 2013,
Mr. Thomas sought treatment after he fell in a wet bathtub. (Doc. 7-17, p. 5). Mr.
Thomas reported that “he landed on his left side and leg and says it is very painful
today. Also stiff.” (Doc. 7-17, p. 5). Upon examination, Mr. Thomas moved his
left leg “stiffly” and demonstrated “a careful guarded gait.” (Doc. 7-17, p. 6). The
nurse practitioner diagnosed “acute muscle and soft tissue sprain and bruising.”
(Doc. 7-17, p. 7). X-rays were negative, and Mr. Thomas’s knee film was “not
suspicious for fracture or dislocation.” (Doc. 7-17, p. 7). At his last recorded
medical examination in July 2013, Mr. Thomas did not complain of back pain or
problems associated with his injuries after his fall. (Doc. 7-17, p. 10). In light of
Mr. Thomas’s physical progress, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Thomas’s “physical
and mental limitations are not independently disabling,” and if Mr. Thomas
stopped his substance abuse, he could perform medium work. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 35-6).
As evidence of disability, Mr. Thomas cites a number of treatment notes
from his visits to VA medical centers between 2008 and 2012. (Doc. 9, pp. 2-3).
Over the years, various providers diagnosed Mr. Thomas with major depressive
disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, lower back spasms, and degenerative disc
disease. (Doc. 7-13, pp. 32-39, 42; Doc. 7-16, pp. 28-39).
In large part, these
treatment notes do not contain specific opinions about how these diagnoses and
impairments impact Mr. Thomas’s ability to work. A finding of disability hinges
on the functional limitations that accompany a condition, not the existence of the
condition itself. See McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1547 (11th Cir. 1986)
(“[T]he ‘severity’ of a medically ascertained disability must be measured in terms
of its effect upon ability to work, and not simply in terms of deviation from purely
medical standards of bodily perfection or normality.”); see also Obsborn v.
Barnhart, 194 Fed. Appx. 654, 667 (11th Cir. 2006) (“the ‘severity’ of a medically
ascertained disability must be measured in terms of its effect upon ability to work,
and not simply in terms of deviation from purely medical standards of bodily
perfection or normality”); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a) (“An impairment or
combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit your
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.”).
considering the entire record, the ALJ did not err in determining that despite Mr.
Thomas’s physical and mental conditions, Mr. Thomas could perform medium
In addition, despite the mental impairments and diagnoses contained in Mr.
Thomas’s treatment notes, the VA cleared Mr. Thomas for participation in the
vocational rehabilitation program with no mental limitations. (Doc. 7-10, p. 94).
As the ALJ explained, the records also are inconsistent with Mr. Thomas’s
progress through the vocational rehabilitation program. (Doc. 7-3, p. 30). For
example, in February 2012, Mr. Thomas’s recreation therapist noted that Mr.
Thomas “displayed good social skills and sportsmanship with staff and other vets.
[Mr. Thomas] expressed enjoyment in playing card games and displayed
excitement, seemed to enjoy competing among peers.” (Doc. 7-8, p. 76). In
March 2012, Mr. Thomas told his social worker that he planned to start playing
golf to prevent boredom. (Doc. 7-8, p. 76). Other progress notes demonstrate that
Mr. Thomas was attentive, could remain focused, and engaged in discussion.
(Doc. 708, pp. 78-80).
Although Mr. Thomas argues that his 45 GAF score undermines the ALJ’s
RFC assessment, the Court finds that the ALJ had good cause to reject this
measure of Mr. Thomas’s functioning. This GAF score provides little probative
value because it dates from 2008. (Doc. 7-13, pp. 38-39). The ALJ has a duty to
develop the record only for a one-year period before the plaintiff’s application
date. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. 1512(d), 416.912(d). In addition, the Social Security
Commissioner has noted that the GAF scale “‘does not have a direct correlation to
the severity requirements in our mental disorders listings.’” Nye v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 524 Fed. Appx. 538, 545 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing 65 Fed. Reg. at 50765-65).
VA staff psychiatrist Dr. Mary Strong’s January 11, 2012 examination of
Mr. Thomas does not change the result. (Doc. 7-11, pp. 13-20). Dr. Strong found
that Mr. Thomas suffered from cocaine and cannabis dependence, chronic PTSD,
recurrent major depression and chronic mental illness. She assessed a GAF score
(Doc. 7-11, p. 20). The ALJ rejected Dr. Strong’s findings because “the
hearing level evidence reported a much improved outlook for the claimant.” (Doc.
7-3, p. 32). The ALJ also determined that Dr. Strong’s opinion “was internally
inconsistent in that she noted [Mr. Thomas] was oriented and had intact cognition,
yet had a GAF for 46 with a rather guarded prognosis.” Substantial evidence
supports this determination. See Poellnitz v. Astrue, 349 Fed. Appx. 500, 503
(11th Cir. 2009) (holding that the opinion of an examining physician as to marked
and extreme limitations was properly discounted due to her own reports);
Wainwright v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2007 WL 708971, at *2 (11th Cir. Mar. 9,
2007) (ALJ properly rejected the opinion of an examining physician because the
opinion “was contrary to the opinions and assessments” of other physicians and
other medical evidence).
Mr. Thomas also argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported
by the evidence because no physician at the VA lifted a 10 pound lifting restriction
that Dr. Charles C. Hudson imposed in February 2009. (Doc. 9, p. 3; see also Doc.
7-13, p. 16). The single reference to a 10 pound lifting restriction in 2009 does not
undermine the ALJ’s RFC assessment. Dr. Hudson imposed the 10 pound lifting
restriction on February 11, 2009 when he cleared Mr. Thomas to participate in
vocational rehabilitation. (Doc. 7-13, p. 16). Following that initial advice, Mr.
Thomas received positive physical examinations, vocational treatments, and
clearance to participate in the vocational rehabilitation program without physical
limitations. (Doc. 7-10, pp. 91-95; Doc. 7-11, p. 44). Additionally, in 2013, Mr.
Thomas’s goal was to attend the gym on a weekly basis for three months. (Doc. 717, p. 15). At that time, Mr. Thomas’s pain was not interfering with his optimal
level of functioning or participation in rehabilitation. (Doc. 7-17, p. 15).
though no VA physician explicitly lifted the 10 pound restriction, more recent
treatment notes are inconsistent with Dr. Hudson’s 2009 findings. See McCloud v.
Barnhart, 166 Fed. Appx. 410, 418-19 (11th Cir. 2006) (an ALJ “may reject the
opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.”).
Finally, the Court is not persuaded by Mr. Thomas’s argument that the ALJ
should have concluded that Mr. Thomas’s sleep apnea is a severe impairment. In
his decision, the ALJ noted Mr. Thomas’s obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis. The
ALJ recognized that Mr. Thomas’s sleep apnea results in excessive daytime
sleepiness. (Doc. 7-3, p. 25; Doc. 7-3, p. 60). The ALJ also observed that doctors
prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machine, which
improved Mr. Thomas’s delta and rapid eye movement; reduced his arousals from
33.5 per hour to 9.8 per hour; eliminated his snore; reduced his respiratory index
from 66.9 per hour to 3.7 per hour; and eliminated his hypoxic periods and snoring.
(Doc. 7-14, p. 22; Doc. 7-17, p. 26).
The ALJ concluded that Mr. Thomas
undermined his credibility by claiming that the CPAP machine only helped his
symptoms “a little bit,” in light of a sleep study that documented significant
improvement in Mr. Thomas’s sleep with his use of the CPAP machine. (Doc. 7-3,
p. 25). Mr. Thomas testified that he uses the CPAP machine every night, and after
taking into consideration the results of the sleep study, the ALJ determined that
Mr. Thomas’s sleep apnea was a non-severe impairment and does not have more
than a minimal effect on Mr. Thomas’s ability to perform basic work activities.
(Doc. 7-3, pp. 25-6; Doc. 7-3, p. 60).
Substantial evidence supports this
conclusion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a).
Mr. Thomas should not be found disabled under Grid Rule
On October 29, 2011, the amended alleged onset date, Mr. Thomas was 53
years old. Based on Dr. Hudson’s imposition of 10 pound lifting restriction, Mr.
Thomas contends that the VA limited him to sedentary work. (Doc. 9, pp. 3-4; see
also Doc. 7-13, p. 16).
Therefore, Mr. Thomas suggests that the ALJ must
conclude that Mr. Thomas presumptively is entitled to disability benefits under
Grid Rule 201.10. (Doc. 9, pp. 3-4). Under this rule, an individual approaching
advanced age (50-54) with a limited education and past work experience at a
skilled or semi-skilled level with non-transferable skills is “disabled” under the
grid. See C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appx. 2, Table 1. Because substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s decision that Mr. Thomas can perform light work and is not
limited to sedentary work, see supra pp. 6-14, the ALJ was not required to consider
Grid Rule 201.10.
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
Commissioner. Accordingly, the Court affirms the Commissioner. The Court will
enter a separate final judgment consistent with this memorandum opinion.
DONE and ORDERED this March 3, 2017.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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