Sosa v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff benefits is AFFIRMED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Katherine P. Nelson on 2/4/2014. (srr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MARIA J. SOSA,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
Civil Action No. 13-00269-N
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Maria J. Sosa brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).
The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned
United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings in this Court pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(c). (See Doc. 17 (“In accordance with provisions of 28 U.S.C. 636(c) and
Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate
Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including . . . order the entry of a
final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”).)
Upon consideration of the administrative record (“R.”) (Doc. 9), Sosa’s brief
(Doc. 10), the Commissioner’s brief (Doc. 13), and the arguments presented at the
hearing held January 16, 2014 (see Doc. 20), it is determined that the
Commissioner’s decision denying Sosa benefits should be AFFIRMED.1
Sosa filed an application for DIB on November 1, 2010 (R. 135-143), alleging
she became disabled March 6, 2006 (see R. 137).
denied. (See R. 59-65.)
Her application was initially
A hearing was then conducted before an Administrative
Law Judge on February 15, 2012 (see R. 40-58). On April 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a
decision finding Sosa was not disabled (R. 22-39), and she sought review from the
Appeals Council. The Appeals Council issued a decision declining to review the
ALJ’s determination on April 3, 2013 (see R. 1-8)—making that determination the
Commissioner’s final decision for purposes of judicial review, see 20 C.F.R. §
404.981—and a complaint was filed in this Court on May 22, 2013 (see Doc. 1).
Standard of Review and Claims on Appeal
In all Social Security cases, a plaintiff (also referred to herein as a claimant)
bears the burden of proving that he or she is unable to perform his or her previous
Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986).
whether that burden has been met, and thus a claimant has proven that he or she is
disabled, the examiner (most often an ALJ) must consider the following four factors:
(1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining
physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the plaintiff’s age, education, and work
Any appeal taken from this memorandum opinion and order and
corresponding judgment shall be made directly to the Eleventh Circuit. (See Doc. 17 (“An
appeal from a judgment entered by a Magistrate Judge shall be taken directly to the United
States Court of Appeals for this judicial circuit in the same manner as an appeal from any
other judgment of this district court.”).)
history. Id. An ALJ, in turn,
uses a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether the
claimant is disabled, which considers: (1) whether the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant
has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the severe impairment
meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments in the
regulations; (4) if not, whether the claimant has the [residual functional
capacity, or] RFC[,] to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not,
whether, in light of the claimant’s RFC, age, education and work
experience, there are other jobs the claimant can perform.
Watkins v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed. App’x 868, 870 (11th Cir. Feb. 9,
2012) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (c)-(f), 416.920(a)(4), (c)-(f);
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004)) (footnote omitted).
If a plaintiff proves that he or she cannot do his or her past relevant work, it
then becomes the Commissioner’s burden to prove that the plaintiff is
capable—given his or her age, education, and work history—of engaging in another
kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy.
Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834,
836 (11th Cir. 1985). Finally, but importantly, although “the [plaintiff] bears the
burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work,
the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair
Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).
The task for this Court is to determine whether the Commissioner’s decision
to deny a plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence.
evidence is defined as more than a scintilla, and means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). “In determining whether substantial evidence
exists, [a court] must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence
favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner’s] decision.”
Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Courts are precluded, however, from
“deciding the facts anew or re-weighing the evidence.”
Davison v. Astrue, 370 Fed.
App’x 995, 996 (11th Cir. Apr. 1, 2010) (per curiam) (citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395
F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)).
And, “[e]ven if the evidence preponderates
against the Commissioner’s findings, [a court] must affirm if the decision reached is
supported by substantial evidence.”
Id. (citing Crawford v. Commissioner of Soc.
Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004)) (emphasis added).
On appeal to this Court, Sosa asserts two—related—reasons why the
Commissioner’s decision to deny her benefits is in error (i.e., not supported by
The Commissioner erred in rejecting the opinion of Mark Pita, M.D.,
her treating physician; and
After rejecting Dr. Pita’s opinion, the Commissioner erred in rendering
a residual functional capacity assessment that is not supported by the
medical opinion of any treating or examining source, and lacks an
articulation of linkage to the medical evidence of record.2
An ALJ’s RFC determination need not necessarily be supported by an opinion
(i.e., an RFC or physical capacities evaluation) from a treating or examining physician.
Contra Coleman v. Barnhart, 264 F. Supp. 2d 1007 (S.D. Ala. 2003). Since Coleman, this
Court has recognized that such a requirement is not a correct pronouncement of the law.
See, e.g., McMillian v. Astrue, CA No. 11–00545–C, 2012 WL 1565624 (S.D. Ala. May 1,
2012); see also id. at *4 n.5 (noting that decisions of this Court “in which a matter is
remanded to the Commissioner because the ALJ’s RFC determination was not supported by
substantial and tangible evidence still accurately reflect the view of this Court, but not to
the extent that such decisions are interpreted to require that substantial and tangible
evidence must—in all cases—include an RFC or PCE from a physician” (internal
The Court will address each reason in turn.
The ALJ has articulated an appropriate reason, supported by
substantial evidence, to not give Dr. Pita’s opinion controlling
On appeal, Sosa contends that the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Mark
Pita—rendered through a physical capacities evaluation (“PCE”) and a clinical
assessment of pain (“CAP”) both completed November 8, 2011 (R. 299-300 [Ex.
10F])3—shows that she “is unable to perform even sedentary work on a sustained
(Doc. 10 at 7.) Dr. Pita, as explained in the plaintiff’s brief,
has an established treatment relationship with Ms. Sosa, since at least
July of 2006, and he prescribes prescription medications to help
manage her pain. His opinion, with regard to Ms. Sosa’s physical
limitations and degree of pain, is supported by the objective evidence.
Moreover, his opinion is not conclusively countered by any other
opinion evidence of record from a treating or examining physician
during the relevant period of time. Had the ALJ properly accepted the
opinion of Dr. Pita with regard to the extent of Ms. Sosa’s physical
limitations and degree of pain, she would have necessarily found that
Ms. Sosa’s ability to perform work-related tasks is more significantly
compromised. In fact, the ALJ’s first hypothetical question posed to
the vocational expert was based on the opinion of Dr. Pita in Exhibit
10F ([R.] 299), and the vocational expert testified that no jobs would be
available for such an individual ([R.] 55-56).
punctuation altered and citation omitted)).
As such, the Court will focus on Sosa’s
Sosa also points to the CAP Dr. Pita completed April 29, 2011 (R. 209 [Ex.
1F]). In both CAPs, Dr. Pita opines that Sosa’s “[p]ain is frequently present to such an
extent as to be distracting to the adequate performance of work activities.” In the April
2011 CAP, he further opines that “[m]edications can cause side effects which impose some
limitations upon [Sosa] but not to such a degree as to create serious problems in most
instances, but in the November 2011 CAP, his opinion is that “[m]edication side effects can
be expected to be severe and to limit [Sosa]’s effectiveness due to distraction, inattention,
drowsiness, etc.” (Compare R. 209, with R. 300.)
(Id. at 10-11.)
As this Court has recently reiterated,
If an RFC from a treating source exists in the record, before the Court
may consider whether an ALJ’s RFC determination that does not give
controlling weight to the treating source RFC is supported by
substantial evidence, it must first determine whether substantial
evidence supports the reasons the ALJ articulated for not giving
controlling weight to the opinions of the treating source.
Warbington v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 13–00119–N, 2013 WL 6627015, at *8 (S.D.
Ala. Dec. 17, 2013) (citing Thomas v. Astrue, No. CA 11–0406–C, 2012 WL 1145211,
at *9 (S.D. Ala. Apr. 5, 2012) (“Because the undersigned finds that the ALJ did not
explicitly articulate an adequate reason, supported by substantial evidence, for
rejecting a portion of [the treating physician’s] PCE assessment, this Court must
necessarily find that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial
evidence.”)). As to treating source opinions, the law in this Circuit is that they
“must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause’ is
shown to the contrary.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997).4 Good cause is shown when the: “(1) treating physician’s
opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a
contrary finding; or (3) treating physician’s opinion was conclusory or
inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records.” Phillips, 357 F.3d
at 1241. Where the ALJ articulate[s] specific reasons for failing to
give the opinion of a treating physician controlling weight, and those
“In every case, a treating physician will have greater access to the medical
records, and more familiarity with the patient and his condition than will an examining
physician or a physician who merely reviewed the record evidence. This is the reason for
the treating physician rule whereby greater deference is usually accorded to the opinion of a
treating physician than the opinion of a physician who has only examined the patient one
time or the opinion of a physician who has merely reviewed the medical records. This is the
reason the courts require an ALJ to provide specific, legitimate reasons for discounting a
treating physician’s opinion.” Vine v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 09-2212-KHV-GBC, 2010 WL
2245079, at *11 (D. Kan. May 11, 2010) (internal citations omitted), report and
recommendation adopted, 2010 WL 2245076 (D. Kan. June 2, 2010).
reasons are supported by substantial evidence, there is no reversible
error. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005).
Gilabert v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 396 Fed. App’x 652, 655 (11th Cir. Sept. 21,
2010) (per curiam) (some internal citations modified and footnote added); accord
D’Andrea v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 389 Fed. App’x 944, 947-48 (11th Cir.
July 28, 2010) (per curiam).
As to the weight to be given Dr. Pita’s opinion, the ALJ stated that she “gives
[it] little weight[,]” explaining,
In November 2011, Dr. Pita opined that the claimant can only sit for
one hour in a day, stand for one hour, and only occasionally lift ten
pounds. Dr. Pita also opined that the claimant would be distracted
from adequate performance of work activities due to pain and would
experience severe side effects from medication. (Ex. 10F) The
medical evidence does not support Dr. Pita’s opinion. Specifically, as
mentioned above, diagnostic scans show evidence of some degeneration;
however, the degenerative changes are not significant enough to cause
the level of limitation suggested by Dr. Pita. For example, there is no
evidence of stenosis. Further, multiple physicians have noted no
neurological or musculoskeletal dysfunction. Also, no physician has
recommended surgical intervention.
As a whole, this evidence
strongly indicates that the claimant is capable of performing more work
activity than opined by Dr. Pita.
Sosa argues that this decision by the ALJ is, itself, “certainly a medical
opinion, and the ALJ needed some evidence to support it.”
(Doc. 10 at 7.) She
How does the ALJ conclude that the spinal defects indicated on the
November 18, 2011 MRI do not give rise to the symptoms and degree of
pain [she] alleged . . . , which allegations Dr. Pita found to be credible?
The ALJ fails to cite any medical source opinion in support of her
conclusion. Indeed, there is no such supporting evidence.
(Id.; see also id. at 12 (contending that an “ALJ may not properly discount the
treating physician’s opinion where the medical evidence does not conclusively
counter the opinion and no other good cause is offered” (citing Schnorr v. Bowen, 816
F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987))).)
First, it is significant that Dr. Pita’s opinion (R. 299-300 [Ex. 10F]), which
Sosa contends conclusively proves she is disabled (see, e.g., Doc. 10 at 12), is dated
November 8, 2011, while the November 2011 MRI, which Sosa implies supports that
opinion, was not conducted until November 18, 2011. (See R. 301 [Ex. 11F].) The
impression from that MRI, as found by Dr. Larson, was that “[t]here is a linear fluid
collection within the thoracic cord at the level of the T11 vertebral body.”
Larson noted that, based on this, “[t]he two main considerations [were]
myelomalacia versus a syrinx[,]” but that “[f]urther assessment with an MRI of the
thoracic spine without and with IV contrast can be considered to exclude a possible
mass within the cord.”
Dr. Larson further noted that “[n]o lumbar spine
canal stenosis” was found. (Id.)
It appears that Dr. Pita received this report on
November 21, 2011 (see id.) and reviewed it with Sosa the next day (see R. 302
(treatment record dated Nov. 22, 2011, noting, “MRI of the lumbar spine shows
possible syrinx at T11. Will refer for further evaluation.”)).
Based on Dr. Larson’s
impression of no stenosis and both doctors’ conclusion that further assessment was
required, this Court finds no fault in the ALJ’s conclusion not to accept this MRI as
definitive proof as to “the symptoms and degree of Sosa’s pain.”
(Doc. 10 at 7.)
Next, contrary to Sosa’s argument, the ALJ’s decision not to give controlling
weight to Dr. Pita’s November 8, 2011 opinion, does not raise the specter of Schnorr.
That is, the ALJ here did not “fail to present good cause to discount the opinion of
[a treating medical source].”
Schnorr, 816 F.2d at 582; see also, e.g., England v.
Astrue, Civil Action No. 6:12–CV–01093–KOB, 2013 WL 5230001, at *2-3 (N.D. Ala.
Sept. 17, 2013) (“[W]here medical evidence does not conclusively counter the treating
physician’s opinion, and no other good cause is presented, the Commissioner
cannot discount the treating doctor’s opinion.” (citing Schnorr) (emphasis added)).5
The ALJ instead discounted Dr. Pita’s opinion because the medical evidence did not
support it. (Compare R. 35 (“For example, there is no evidence of stenosis.”), with
R. 301 (results of Nov. 18, 2011, ordered by Dr. Pita, noting, “[n]o lumbar spine canal
See Madison v. Astrue, No. 08-1243-JTM, 2009 WL 1873811, at *5 (D.
Kan. June 30, 2009) (“An ALJ may give less weight to the opinion of a physician
when it is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record.” (citing
Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1078 (10th Cir. 2007))); Lewis v. Astrue, No. CA
12–00201–C, 2012 WL 5868615, at *8 (S.D. Ala. Nov. 20, 2012)6; cf. Patterson v.
Moreover, it has not been shown that, “[c]onsidering the record as a whole, the
medical evidence does not conclusively counter [Dr. Pita’s] opinion.” Schnorr, 816 F.2d at
In Lewis, this Court rejected the same argument made on appeal here—that,
in choosing not to give a treating source opinion controlling weight, “the ALJ [ ] substitute[d]
her judgment for that of a medical . . . expert[,]” (Doc. 10 at 7). There, this Court noted that
one reason given by the ALJ for discounting the treating opinion (the “limitations seem
substantially in excess of what would be expected even given the complaints reported by the
could be interpreted, at first blush at least, as the ALJ substituting her own
judgment for the judgment of a physician, but [that] reason, although
nebulous, [was] better characterized, after consideration of [the] lengthy
Astrue, No. 1:07–cv–00129–MP–AK, 2008 WL 4097461, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 27,
2008) (“[A] contradiction between a treating physician’s opinion and her own medical
records has been held to constitute one possible sufficient ground for rejecting a
treating physician’s opinion.” (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440)).
The ALJ’s RFC assessment is linked to and supported by
Because the ALJ has articulated an appropriate reason to not give Dr. Pita’s
opinion controlling weight, and because that reason is supported by substantial
evidence, the undersigned will now turn to the ALJ’s RFC determination, to examine
whether that assessment is linked to specific evidence in the record regarding the
plaintiff’s ability to perform the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of
work. See, e.g., Salter v. Astrue, No. CA 11–00681–C, 2012 WL 3817791, at *3 (S.D.
Ala. Sept. 4, 2012)
A plaintiff’s RFC—which “includes physical abilities, such as sitting, standing
or walking, and mental abilities, such as the ability to understand, remember and
carry out instructions or to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers and
work pressure”—“is a medical assessment of what th[at plaintiff] can do in a work
setting despite any mental, physical or environmental limitations caused by [his or
restrictions . . . , as the ALJ finding [the] opinion is either “not bolstered by the
evidence[,]” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1241, or, put slightly differently, not
consistent “with the evidence as a whole and other factors[,]” Brihn v. Astrue,
582 F. Supp. 2d 1088, 1100-01 (W.D. Wis. 2008). Both provide good cause to
afford a treating source less than controlling weight.
Id. (internal citation modified).
her] impairments and related symptoms.”
Watkins, 457 Fed. App’x at 870 n.5
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)-(c), 416.945(a)-(c)); see also Packer v. Commissioner,
Soc. Sec. Admin., --- Fed. App’x ----, 2013 WL 5788574, at *1 (11th Cir. Oct. 29, 2013)
(per curiam) (“An RFC determination is an assessment, based on all relevant
evidence, of a claimant’s remaining ability to do work despite her impairments.”
(citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440)). At the fourth step of the sequential analysis, at
which the ALJ determines a plaintiff’s RFC, an ALJ utilizes the plaintiff’s past
relevant work as a starting point, from which his or her current impairments (or at
least those documented by credible evidence) are deducted, to determine: (1) the
RFC; and (2) whether that RFC allows the plaintiff to perform his or has past
relevant work or, if not, whether, considering that RFC, along with the plaintiff’s
age, education, and work experience, there are other jobs he or she can perform.7
See id. (“The ALJ’s finding as to a [plaintiff’s] RFC is based on all the relevant
evidence in the record, including any medical evidence, and is used in steps four
and five of the sequential evaluation to determine whether the claimant can do her
past relevant work or any other work.” (citing §§ 404.1545(a)(1), (5), 416.945(a)(1),
Indisputably, an ALJ is never going to find an RFC that is in excess of a
plaintiff’s past-relevant work, as that work is categorized by the ALJ. Therefore, if a
claimant had past relevant work in the medium and light range—as categorized by the
ALJ—an ALJ is not going to then find an RFC greater than medium work and, indeed,
might even “default” to light work. Cf. Squires v. Astrue, Civil No. 07-5096, 2008 WL
1776941, at *9 (W.D. Ark. Mar. 24, 2008) (rejecting a plaintiff’s argument “that the ALJ
[erred] in concluding that she could return to work at a heavier exertional level than she had
ever performed in the past”; in doing so, the court noted that the VE was present during the
plaintiff’s description of her past work as a caregiver and “categorized the caregiver job
based on plaintiff’s own description of the position, which would qualify the job as heavy
work” under the regulations (citations omitted)).
(5)) (emphasis added)).
Here, at the fourth step, the ALJ determined Sosa’s RFC as follows: “After
careful consideration of the entire record, the [ALJ] finds that, through the date last
insured[—December 31, 2011 (see, e.g., R. 28)—]the claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR
Substantial evidence review of an RFC determination.
To find that an ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial
evidence, it must be shown that the ALJ has “provide[d] a sufficient rationale to
link” substantial record evidence “to the legal conclusions reached.”
Barnhart, 363 F. Supp. 2d 1345, 1347 (M.D. Fla. 2005); compare id., with Packer v.
Astrue, Civil Action No. 11–0084–CG–N, 2013 WL 593497, at *4 (S.D. Ala. Feb. 14,
2013) (“[T]he ALJ must link the RFC assessment to specific evidence in the record
bearing upon the claimant’s ability to perform the physical, mental, sensory, and
In determining that Sosa retains the RFC “to perform the full range of light
work[,]” the ALJ necessarily found that Sosa can “lift no more than 20 pounds at a time
and occasionally lift or carry[ ] objects weighing up to 10 pounds.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1567(b). The statutory definition of “light work” continues,
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 activities. If someone can do
light work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless
there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability
to sit for long periods of time.
other requirements of work.” (quoting Salter, 2012 WL 3817791, at *3)), aff’d --- Fed.
App’x ----, 2013 WL 57885749; see also Hanna v. Astrue, 395 Fed. App’x 634, 636
(11th Cir. Sept. 9, 2010) (per curiam) (“The ALJ must state the grounds for his
decision with clarity to enable us to conduct meaningful review. . . . Absent such
explanation, it is unclear whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s
findings; and the decision does not provide a meaningful basis upon which we can
review [a plaintiff’s] case.” (internal citation omitted)); Ricks v. Astrue, No. 3:10–cv–
975–TEM, 2012 WL 1020428, at *9 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 27, 2012) (“‘The existence of
substantial evidence in the record favorable to the Commissioner may not insulate
the ALJ’s determination from remand when he or she does not provide a sufficient
rationale to link such evidence to the legal conclusions reached.’
Where the district
court cannot discern the basis for the Commissioner’s decision, a sentence-four
remand may be appropriate to allow him to explain the basis for his decision.”
(quoting Russ, 363 F. Supp. 2d at 1347)); compare Packer, 2013 WL 593497, at *4
(While “the Eleventh Circuit has declined to impose overly rigid requirements when
reviewing disability decisions[,] meaningful review . . . requires [that] ALJs [ ] state
with clarity the grounds for their decisions.” (internal citations and quotation marks
omitted)), with Packer, 2013 WL 5788574, at *1 (“There is no rigid requirement that
the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence, so long as the ALJ’s decision is
In affirming the ALJ, the Eleventh Circuit rejected Packer’s substantial
evidence argument, noting, she “failed to establish that her RFC determination was not
supported by substantial evidence” in light of the ALJ’s consideration of her credibility and
the medical evidence. Id. at *2.
not a broad rejection, i.e., where the ALJ does not provide enough reasoning for a
reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ considered the claimant’s medical condition
as a whole.” (citing Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1211)).10
In her brief, Sosa contends,
[t]he extent of the Commissioner’s explanation, as to the manner in
which the residual functional capacity was derived, was as follows ([R.]
As a whole this evidence, [sic] supports the finding of a light
residual functional capacity. Specifically, there is no evidence
of spinal stenosis or marked degeneration in the lumbar or
cervical spine. Second, multiple physicians have noted that
the claimant has a normal gait and normal musculoskeletal and
Further, at the consultative
examination, the claimant demonstrated the ability to walk
without difficulty and the ability to perform postural such as
squatting, tandem walking, and walking on heels and toes.
This “explanation” by the ALJ[, Sosa argues,] fails to provide any
It is the ALJ’s (or, in some cases, the Appeals Council’s) responsibility, not the
responsibility of the Commissioner’s counsel on appeal to this Court, to “state with clarity”
the grounds for an RFC determination.
Stated differently, “linkage” may not be
manufactured speculatively by the Commissioner—using “the record as a whole”—on
appeal, but rather, must be clearly set forth in the Commissioner’s decision. See, e.g.,
Durham v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 3:08CV839-SRW, 2010 WL 3825617, at *3 (M.D. Ala.
Sept. 24, 2010) (rejecting the Commissioner’s request to affirm an ALJ’s decision because,
according to the Commissioner, overall, the decision was “adequately explained and
supported by substantial evidence in the record”; holding that affirming that decision would
require that the court “ignor[e] what the law requires of the ALJ[; t]he court ‘must reverse
[the ALJ’s decision] when the ALJ has failed to provide the reviewing court with sufficient
reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted’” (quoting
Hanna, 395 Fed. App’x at 636 (internal quotation marks omitted))); see also id. at *3 n.4 (“In
his brief, the Commissioner sets forth the evidence on which the ALJ could have relied . . . .
There may very well be ample reason, supported by the record, for [the ALJ’s ultimate
conclusion]. However, because the ALJ did not state his reasons, the court cannot evaluate
them for substantial evidentiary support. Here, the court does not hold that the ALJ’s
ultimate conclusion is unsupportable on the present record; the court holds only that the
ALJ did not conduct the analysis that the law requires him to conduct.” (emphasis in
original)); Patterson v. Bowen, 839 F.2d 221, 225 n.1 (4th Cir. 1988) (“We must . . . affirm the
ALJ’s decision only upon the reasons he gave.”).
linkage between the medical evidence of record and the assessment of
(Doc. 10 at 16.)
First, contrary to Sosa’s characterization, the excerpt above is “not the extent
of the Commissioner’s explanation”; it is merely a summary made after setting out
the “documentary evidence” (see R. 33-34). The ALJ, moreover, considered Sosa’s
subjective complaints of pain (see R. 34) as well as the opinions of Drs. Pita, Saiter,
and Ozment (see R. 35).
Importantly, in establishing Sosa’s RFC, which means determining Sosa’s
“remaining ability to do work despite her impairments[,]” Packer, 2013 WL 5788574,
at *1—keeping a focus on the extent of those impairments as documented by the
credible record evidence—the ALJ walks through evidence documenting Sosa’s
history of back and neck pain complaints from October 2006 through January 2008
(see R. 33) to conclude that such evidence is “significant because it shows that prior
to the alleged onset date, [Sosa] did not have significant degeneration in the cervical
spine. The evidence also shows[, according to the ALJ,] that [Sosa] maintained
normal strength and gait . . . [and] that [she] did not have a surgical condition.”
The ALJ then considers evidence that, she contends, “shows that [Sosa]
received very little treatment for back and neck pain” after the alleged onset date (R.
33; see R. 33-34), before concluding that “this evidence . . . as a whole” supports her
conclusion that Sosa can perform light work (R. 34), and then turning to—and
considering—Sosa’s subjective complaints of pain and the medical opinion evidence.
The ALJ’s analysis shows to this Court that she considered Sosa’s medical
condition as a whole in determining Sosa’s RFC.
Accordingly, the ALJ’s RFC
determination, contrary to Sosa’s belief, provides “an articulated linkage to the
medical evidence of record.”
(Doc. 10 at 12.)
The linkage requirement is simply
another way to say that, in order for this Court to find that an RFC determination is
supported by substantial evidence, ALJs must “show their work” or, said somewhat
differently, show how they applied and analyzed the evidence to determine a
plaintiff’s RFC. See, e.g., Hanna, 395 Fed. App’x at 636 (an ALJ’s “decision [must]
provide a meaningful basis upon which we can review [a plaintiff’s] case”); Ricks,
2012 WL 1020428, at *9 (an ALJ must “explain the basis for his decision”); Packer,
2013 WL 5788574, at *1 (an ALJ [must] provide enough reasoning for a reviewing
court to conclude that the ALJ considered the claimant’s medical condition as a
whole” (emphasis added)). Thus, by “showing her work” (see R. 33-35), the ALJ has
provided the required “linkage” between the record evidence and her RFC
determination necessary to facilitate this Court’s meaningful review of her decision.
Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying Sosa benefits be AFFIRMED.
DONE and ORDERED this the 4th day of February, 2014.
/s/ Katherine P. Nelson
KATHERINE P. NELSON
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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