Frierson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 6/21/2016. (AVC)
2016 Jun-21 AM 08:47
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Civil Action Number
Kcloefphraex Frierson 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 final
adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the
Commissioner”). This court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
applied the correct legal standard and that his decision – which has become the
decision of the Commissioner – is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore,
the court AFFIRMS the decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Frierson filed her applications for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income
and Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on January 11, 2010, and January 28,
2010, respectively, alleging a disability onset date of December 20, 2009, due to
severe anxiety and back pain. (R. 20, 94, 216, 218, 246). After the SSA denied
her applications, Frierson requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 108, 122). The
ALJ subsequently denied Frierson’s claim, (R. 91), and Frierson sought review, (R.
104). The Appeals Council issued a decision vacating the ALJ’s denial of benefits.
Id. On remand, the ALJ once again denied Frierson’s claim, (R. 17), which
became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused
to grant review, (R. 1-4). Frierson then filed this action pursuant to §205(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)
mandates 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 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. §416(i). 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
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 ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis on remand, the ALJ found that Frierson
had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 20, 2009, the
alleged onset date,” and therefore met Step One. (R. 23). Next, the ALJ found that
Frierson did not satisfy Step Two because she did “not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that . . . significantly limited [her] . . . ability to
perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore,
[Frierson did] not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Id.
Since the ALJ answered step two in the negative, the ALJ ultimately found that
Frierson had “not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from December 20, 2009, through the date of [the ALJ’s] decision.” (R. 31).
Frierson raises two contentions of alleged error.
contends that the ALJ failed to properly follow the “slight abnormality” standard in
determining her severe impairments, and to properly evaluate and state the weight
given to the medical evidence from Indian Rivers Mental Health Center (“Indian
Rivers”). Doc. 8 at 7, 10. As shown below, neither contention establishes that the
ALJ committed reversible error.
Therefore, the court will affirm the ALJ’s
1. The ALJ properly followed the “slight abnormality” standard
First, Frierson contends that the ALJ failed to follow the slight abnormality
standard when he concluded that she “does not have a severe impairment or
combination of impairments.” Doc. 8 at 8 (citing (R. 23)). Relying on case law
that “[a]n impairment is not severe only if the abnormality is so slight and its effect
so minimal that it would clearly not be expected to interfere with the individual’s
ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience,” McDaniel, 800
F.2d at 1031, Frierson asserts that her paranoid schizophrenia is more than a “slight
abnormality” and qualified as a severe impairment, doc. 8 at 10. As an initial
matter, Frierson is correct that the records from Indian Rivers indicate that Frierson
was receiving treatment for schizophrenia and had a “major” or “serious
impairment or inability to function.” (R. 482, 734). However, as the ALJ noted,
the medical records from Frierson’s treating physician, Dr. Larry Skelton, and
another treating source, DCH Regional Medical Center (“DCH”), show that
Frierson rarely complained of any mental impairments and that her psychiatric
exams consistently revealed that she had normal mood, affect, and decision making
skills. (R. 29); see also, e.g., (R. 398, 401, 690, 816, 944, 983-4). Furthermore,
the records from Dr. Skelton and DCH are consistent with the testimony of Dr.
Alfred Jonas, a medical expert appointed by the ALJ. (R. 68-70). Dr. Jonas
testified that “[t]here are no objective findings in this case and no other symptoms
[besides those found at Indian Rivers] that [support Frierson’s] diagnosis of
schizophrenia.” (R. 73). In light of this record, and because a diagnosis alone does
not establish that an impairment is severe, see Wind v. Barnhart, 133 Fed. App’x.
684, 690 (11th Cir. 2005), Frierson’s reliance on the Indian Rivers records to show
error is unavailing.
In addition to relying on the Indian Rivers records, Frierson also takes issue
with the ALJ’s decision to afford great weight to the opinion of Dr. Jonas. Doc. 8
Frierson is correct that generally the opinion of a non-examining
physician is entitled to little weight.
However, an ALJ can rely on a non-
examining physician’s opinion if it is consistent with the medical evidence. See
Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 (11th Cir. 1991); Jarrett v. Commissioner
of Social Sec., 422 Fed. App’x. 869, 873 (11th Cir. 2011) (“The weight due to a
non-examining physician’s opinion depends, among other things, on the extent to
which it is supported by clinical findings and is consistent with other evidence.”).
This was precisely the case here where the ALJ found: “[Dr. Jonas’] testimony
opinion that [Frierson] has no medically determinable ‘severe’ impairments is
consistent with and supported by the weight of the evidence in this case, including
records and reports obtained from DCH, Dr. Skelton and Indian Rivers Mental
Health.” (R. 29-30). Accordingly, the ALJ properly relied on Dr. Jonas’ opinion
and did not err in failing to find that Frierson’s paranoid schizophrenia is a severe
impairment. See Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 1999) (affirming
an ALJ’s finding that an impairment was not severe where substantial medical
evidence showed that the claimant “manifested few symptoms of the disease”);
Jarrett, 422 Fed. App’x. at 873 (“[T]he more consistent a physician’s opinion is
with the record as a whole, the more weight an ALJ should place on that
2. The ALJ properly evaluated the evidence from Indian Rivers
As her second basis for error, Frierson contends that the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate and state the weight he gave to the medical records from Indian
Rivers. Doc. 8 at 11. This contention is also unavailing because the ALJ, in fact,
discusses Frierson’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia from Indian Rivers and
noted that Frierson “reported symptoms to include seeing snakes, seeing shadows,
hearing voices, and hearing footsteps.” (R. 25). Based on his review of the
records from Indian Rivers, the ALJ found that the records “reflect not much more
than routine follow up [appointments] about every four months.” Id. Because
“there is no rigid requirement that the [ALJ] specifically refer to every piece of
evidence in his decision, so long as [the court can] conclude [that] the [ALJ]
considered [the claimant’s] medical condition as a whole,” Parks ex rel. D.P. v.
Comm’r, Soc. Sec., 783 F.3d 847, 852 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted), the court
finds that the ALJ’s opinion sufficiently established that the ALJ adequately
evaluated the records from Indian Rivers.
Likewise, while Frierson is correct that the ALJ “must state specifically the
weight accorded to each item of evidence and why he reached that decision,”
Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir. 1981), the Eleventh Circuit has
recognized that an ALJ may implicitly make such a determination, see Kemp v.
Astrue, 308 Fed. App’x. 423, 426 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Hutchison v. Bowen, 787
F.2d 1461, 1463 (11th Cir. 1986)). In that respect, although the ALJ does not
specifically state what weight he afforded the evidence from Indian Rivers, it is
clear that the ALJ discounted the evidence by ultimately concluding that “there is
nothing [in the record] that suggests the level of mental compromise or severity of
anxiety reflected in [the Indian Rivers] records . . . .” (R. 29). Therefore, the ALJ
did not commit reversible error.
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination
that Frierson is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ
applied the proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the
Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance
with this memorandum opinion will be entered.
DONE the 21st day of June, 2016.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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