Jones v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 2/16/17. (SMH)
2017 Feb-16 PM 02:44
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ALISA A. JONES,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTNG
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
Civil Action Number
Alisa A. Jones 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 (“SSA”). This
court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct and
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.
Jones filed her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and Title
XVI Supplemental Security Income on May 17, 2013, alleging a disability onset
date of April 29, 2012 due to back pain, a neck injury, COPD, restless leg
syndrome, and depression. (R. 141, 173). After the SSA denied her application,
Jones requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 98–100). The ALJ subsequently
denied Jones’ claim, (R. 8), which became the final decision of the Commissioner
when the Appeals Council refused to grant review, (R. 1–3). Jones then filed this
action pursuant to § 205(g) of the act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 1.
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.
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 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).
The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the Five Step sequential analysis, the ALJ initially determined
that the work Jones engaged in after the alleged onset date of her disability did not
constitute gainful employment. Therefore, the ALJ found that Jones had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date and met the
criteria for Step One. (R. 13). Next, the ALJ acknowledged that Jones’ severe
impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; bilateral
osteoarthritis of the hips; arthralgias, multiple sites, and arthropathy; mood
disorder; and chronic alcohol abuse and narcotic dependence” met the
requirements of Step Two. (R. 15). In this step, the ALJ acknowledged Jones’
impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; benign essential
hypertension; obesity; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with history of
tobacco abuse; abnormal elevated blood sugars, . . . ; history of malignant colon
polyp, . . . ; helicobacter pylon infection; restless leg syndrome; decreased visual
acuity; and sinusitis.” (R. 14–15). However, the ALJ found that these impairments
were either not supported by the record or were mostly nonsymptomatic. (Id.). The
ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that Jones did not satisfy Step Three
because she “[did] 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.” (R. 15) (internal citations omitted). Although the
ALJ answered Step Three in the negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel,
800 F.2d at 1030, she proceeded to Step Four, where she determined that Jones has
the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
Perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).
[Jones] is able to lift/carry and push/pull twenty pounds occasionally, and
ten pounds frequently. [Jones] is able to sit, stand, and walk six hours
each out of an eight-hour workday. However, [Jones] would need the
ability to alternate sitting and standing at will. [Jones] must avoid
climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds; kneeling and crawling. . . .
Mentally, [Jones] is limited to performing simple, routine and repetitive
tasks and making simple, work-related decisions.
(R. 17). In light of Jones’ RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”),
the ALJ determined that Jones could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 24).
Lastly, in Step Five, the ALJ considered Jones’ age, education, work experience,
and RFC, and determined that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that [Jones] can perform.” (R. 24). Therefore, the ALJ found
that Jones “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from April 29, 2012 . . . .” (R. 25).
The crux of Jones’ argument is that the ALJ failed to consider the opinion of
Dr. Shepherd A. Odom, M.D., and that this failure led to “an RFC finding that does
not accurately describe all of her limitations.” Doc. 11 at 3. For the reasons below,
the court rejects her contention and affirms the ALJ’s decision.
1. The ALJ did not err by purportedly failing to give weight to the opinion of
the treating physician in the RFC
Jones’ only contention of error is that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to
Dr. Odom’s opinion in determining Jones’ RFC. Doc. 11 at 4. In evaluating the
medical record, the ALJ is “required to state with particularity the weight he gave
to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825
F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987). Jones is correct that the opinion of a treating
physician must generally be afforded substantial weight. However, the ALJ is
permitted to disregard that opinion when: “(1) [the] treating physician’s opinion
was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported a contrary finding;
or (3) [the] treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the
doctor’s own medical records. . .” Phillips v. Barnhardt, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240
(11th Cir. 2003) (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).
The court finds that the ALJ did not err in affording Dr. Odom’s opinion little
weight and that the ALJ provided his reasons for doing so.
The ALJ first noted that Jones began treatment with Dr. Odom in December
2012 and that Dr. Odom initially diagnosed Jones with chest wall and thoracic
pain. (R. 19). Subsequent appointments saw Jones diagnosed with hypertension,
restless leg syndrome, tinea corporis, cervical and lumbar degenerative disc
disease, arthritis of the hips and shoulders, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus,
and anxiety and depression. (Id.). Over the next six months, Jones also presented to
Dr. Odom with complaints of worsening back pain, and, after Jones reported her
attempt to obtain disability benefits, she ultimately received a diagnosis of
“degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.” (R. 21). Significantly, throughout
this period, Jones only received conservative treatment.
In addition to Dr. Odom’s treatment notes, the ALJ discussed the medical
opinion Dr. Odom provided regarding Jones’ ability to do physical activities as
part of a form he filled out for Jones’ disability application. (R. 241). Within that
opinion, Dr. Odom noted that Jones had diagnoses of COPD and degenerative disc
disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, and that Jones could not walk without
rest, could continuously sit 1-2 hours, stand 20 minutes, and needed a job that
permitted shifting positions at will, with unscheduled work breaks 1-2 times per
day. (Id.). Dr. Odom also placed limitations on her ability to twist, stoop, crouch,
and climb stairs, and indicated that Jones would require a cane or other assistive
device for ambulation. 1 (R. 243).
The ALJ then examined Dr. Odom’s treatment notes in the context of the full
medical record and found that Dr. Odom’s treatment notes and the rest of the
medical sources of the record belied Dr. Odom’s claim. (R. 23). First, the ALJ
pointed out that Dr. Odom diagnosed Jones with COPD, even though it is not listed
as a diagnosis in his treatment records, see (R. 384), and that no other examining or
consultative physician has noted any pulmonary findings that would support a
diagnosis of COPD, 2 (R. 57, 365–70, 382–84). Second, the ALJ noted that Dr.
Odom diagnosed Jones with degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine without
the benefit of any cervical x-rays, (R. 14), and that no medical evidence supported
this finding. As the ALJ put it, there was an absence of “x-rays, magnetic
Dr. Odom’s report also indicates a “poor prognosis.” (R. 243). However, this falls short of
constituting an opinion supporting a finding that Jones is disabled. At most, Dr. Odom’s note is
“a prediction about [Jones’] future condition,” see Moody v. Barnhart, 295 F. Supp. 2d 1278,
1285 (N.D. Ala. 2003), and as such does not support a finding of a current disability.
Furthermore, this court’s review of the record finds that it is devoid of any evidence that Dr.
Odom or any other treating physician considered Jones disabled as a result of her impairments,
much less that their opinions conflicted with the ALJ’s decision. See generally Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983).
Jones argues that Dr. Alan M. Babb diagnosed her COPD. Doc. 11 at 10. This misstates the
record. At Jones’ consultative appointment, Dr. Babb noted that Jones was ill-prepared to discuss
her case and found that Jones’ chest was clear and there were no pulmonary findings. In his
impressions, Dr. Babb included COPD and several other disorders. (R. 253). However, the only
diagnoses he ultimately made were “chronic back pain, obesity, and [hypertension].” (R. 57).
resonance imaging, or computed tomography scan[s] evidencing degenerative disc
disease or herniated disc in her spine; and no referrals for physical therapy or
surgical evaluation.” (R. 21, 23). In addition to the lack of x-ray evidence, the ALJ
also discredited Dr. Odom’s opinion of severe degenerative disc disease because it
conflicted with Jones’ own function assessment that she “drives, performs
housework, shops, feeds pets, [and] sometimes goes to the lake . . . .” (R. 22).
Third, with respect to the complaints of bilateral osteoarthritis and Jones’
difficulties ambulating, while Dr. Odom provided x-ray evidence of worsening
arthritic changes to Jones’ hips, (R. 22), the ALJ discredited Dr. Odom’s findings
because during a consultative examination with Dr. Alan M. Babb, Jones showed
“normal range of motion in the upper and lower extremities, specifically including
hips, with no gait disturbance, and no use of assistive device.” (R. 22). The ALJ
also pointed to Jones’ treatment records from the Health Department in November
2013, which indicated that Jones “exhibited normal musculoskeletal system and no
motor or sensory abnormalities.” (R. 22). The ALJ did note that the Health
Department records do show diagnoses of arthralgias and arthropathy. 3
In short, the record demonstrates that, consistent with the law, the ALJ
discussed the inconsistencies between Dr. Odom’s treatment records and the
The ALJ took into consideration the arthritic diagnoses in the RFC determination. However,
based on Jones’ functional reports and the record evidence itself, the ALJ found that these
impairments are not incapacitating. (R. 22).
medical opinion Dr. Odom provided before ultimately articulating the reasons why
he afforded little weight to that opinion. See Adams v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 586 F.
App’x 531, 534 (11th Cir. 2014) (No error where the ALJ “articulated with
particularity the weight he gave to all of the physician assessments in the medical
record” and substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s weighting of the opinion
evidence.); see also Hensley v. Colvin, 89 F. Supp. 3d 1323 (M.D. Fla. 2015) (ALJ
is required to state that reasons why a medical opinion is rejected). Based on the
court’s review of the record, this determination is consistent with the medical
record in evidence. In addition to the discrepancies the ALJ noted between the
medical record and Dr. Odom’s opinion, the court notes that Dr. Odom’s opinion
of the severity of Jones’ limitations is also contradicted by Jones’ own indication
that she had the ability to walk a quarter of a mile prior to needing rest, (R. 204),
which directly contradicts Dr. Odom’s opinion that Jones could not walk a single
city block without needing to rest (R. 241). Because the ALJ did not err in
providing Dr. Odom’s opinion little weight, the court rejects Jones’ related
contention that the RFC is not based on substantial evidence. Beech v. Apfel, 100
F. Supp. 2d 1323, 1330 (S.D. Ala. 2000) (The “determination of residual
functional capacity is within the authority of the ALJ and the assessment should be
based upon all of the relevant evidence of a claimant’s remaining ability to do
work despite her impairments.”); Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997). Accordingly, the court affirms the ALJ’s decision to afford little weight
to Dr. Odom’s opinion and finds that the ALJ’s RFC determination was based on
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Jones is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ applied
Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance
with the memorandum of decision will be entered.
DONE the 16th day of February, 2017.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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