Robinson v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: the Commissioner's final decision issued 1/14/14 denying plaintiff's application for SSI benefits is AFFIRMED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Katherine P. Nelson on 4/2/2015. (srr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 14-00084-N
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Social Security Claimant/Plaintiff Nancy Robinson (“Robinson”) has brought
this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her
application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c.1 (See Doc. 1). By the consent of the parties
(see Doc. 22), the Court has designated the undersigned United States Magistrate
Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action
under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73.2 (See Doc. 23).
The parties have waived oral argument (see Docs. 21, 24), and this action is
Robinson alleges (see Doc. 1 at 1, ¶ 2), and the Commissioner admits (see Doc. 13 at 1, ¶ 1),
that she resides in this judicial district. Thus, venue is proper in this Court. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a
hearing [on a claim for supplemental security income] shall be subject to judicial review as
provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final
determinations under section 405 of this title.”) and 405(g) (“Such action shall be brought in
the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides,
or has his principal place of business…”).
Thus, an appeal taken from the judgment entered in this action may be made directly to
the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
ripe for adjudication. Upon consideration of the parties’ briefs (Docs. 17, 18, 19) and
the relevant portions of the administrative record (Doc. 14) (hereinafter cited as “(R.
[page number(s)])”), the Court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is due to be
On March 30, 2007, Robinson protectively filed with the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) an application SSI, alleging disability beginning March 30,
After her application was initially denied on July 13, 2007, Robinson
requested a hearing on her application.
A hearing was held before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on March 25, 2010. Subsequent to that hearing,
additional evidence was submitted, and a supplemental hearing was held on July 1,
2010, in Montgomery, Alabama. (See R. 51).
On September 10, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on
Robinson’s application. (R. 48-65). Robinson requested review of the ALJ’s decision
by the Appeals Council for the SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
On January 14, 2014, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Robinson’s
request for review. (R. 1-5).
Robinson timely filed this action under § 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the
Commissioner’s final decision on February 25, 2014.
(See Doc. 1); Ingram v.
“SSI is a general public assistance measure providing an additional resource to the aged,
blind, and disabled to assure that their income does not fall below the poverty line.
Eligibility for SSI is based upon proof of indigence and disability.” Sanders v. Astrue, Civil
Action No. 11-0491-N, 2012 WL 4497733, at *3 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 28, 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C.
1382(a), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C)). “For SSI claims, a claimant becomes eligible in the first month
where she is both disabled and has an SSI application on file.” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d
1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.202–03 (2005)).
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007) (“The settled law
of this Circuit is that a court may review, under sentence four of section 405(g), a
denial of review by the Appeals Council.”); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after
any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to
which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a
review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the
mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the
Commissioner of Social Security may allow.”).4
Standard of Review
The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step, sequential
evaluation process used to determine whether a claimant is disabled:
(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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004)). 5 This five-step evaluation process “is used to
“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing [for SSI
benefits] shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the
same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.” 42
U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
The Court will hereinafter use “Step One,” “Step Two,” etc. when referencing individual
steps of this five-step sequential evaluation.
determine disability for both SSI and DIB [Disability Insurance Benefit6] claims.”
Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030–31 (11th Cir.1986); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912
(2005) (five-step determination for SSI); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2005) (five-step
determination for DIB)).
“These regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate
both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Moore
v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Spencer v.
Heckler, 765 F.2d 1090, 1093 (11th Cir. 1985)).
“In determining whether the
claimant has satisfied this initial burden, the examiner must consider four factors:
(1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) the diagnoses of examining
physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work
history.” Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (citing
Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). “These
factors must be considered both singly and in combination. Presence or absence of a
single factor is not, in itself, conclusive.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233,
1240 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted).
If, in Steps One through Four of the five-step evaluation, a plaintiff proves
that he or she has a qualifying disability and cannot do his or her past relevant
work, it then becomes the Commissioner’s burden, at Step Five, 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
Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433.
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 record.” Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987)
“In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the
Commissioner's decision is
‘ “supported by substantial evidence and based on
proper legal standards. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” ’ ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted)
(quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). “In determining
whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must view the record as a whole,
[Commissioner’s] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).
However, the Court “ ‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or
substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].’ ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at
1178 (quoting Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240 n.8 (alteration in original) (quoting
Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239)). Even if the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner’s findings, [a court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported
by substantial evidence.” Davison v. Astrue, 370 F. App’x 995, 996 (11th Cir. 2010)
(per curiam) (unpublished) 7 (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158-59) (emphasis
“Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as
automatons. [The court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the
decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]”
Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted).
Moreover, “[t]here is no presumption…that the Commissioner followed the
appropriate legal standards in deciding a claim for benefits or that the legal
conclusions reached were valid.
Instead, [the court] conduct[s] ‘an exacting
examination’ of these factors.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996)
(per curiam) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990))
(internal citation omitted). See also Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211 (“In Social Security
appeals, we review de novo the legal principles upon which the Commissioner's
decision is based. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). However, we
review the resulting decision only to determine whether it is supported by
substantial evidence. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158–59
(11th Cir. 2004)).
When, as here, “no new evidence is presented to the Appeals Council and it
denies review, then the administrative law judge's decision is necessarily reviewed
as the final decision of the Commissioner…” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1262.
In this Circuit, “[u]npublished opinions are not considered binding precedent, but they
may be cited as persuasive authority.” 11th Cir. R. 36-2 (effective Dec. 1, 2014). See also
Bonilla v. Baker Concrete Const., Inc., 487 F.3d 1340, 1345 n.7 (11th Cir. 2007)
(“Unpublished opinions are not controlling authority and are persuasive only insofar as
their legal analysis warrants.”).
Claim 1 –
Claims on Appeal
“The ALJ abused his discretion when he substituted his own
uninformed medical evaluation for the opinions of Dr. Huey Kidd and
Dr. Donald Blanton, and the ALJ failed to conduct a full and fair
Claim 2 -
“The ALJ relied on evidence that was inconsistent with the regulatory
definition of unskilled work.”
Claim 3 -
“The ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by
substantial evidence, as it did not account for Ms. Robinson’s diabetes.”
(Doc. 18 at 2).8
At Step Four,
the ALJ must assess: (1) the claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”); and (2) the claimant's ability to return to her past relevant
work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). As for the claimant's RFC, the
regulations define RFC as that which an individual is still able to do
despite the limitations caused by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a). Moreover, the ALJ will “assess and make a finding about
[the claimant's] residual functional capacity based on all the relevant
medical and other evidence” in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
Furthermore, the RFC determination is used both to determine
whether the claimant: (1) can return to her past relevant work under
the fourth step; and (2) can adjust to other work under the fifth
step…20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
If the claimant can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ will
conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (f). If the claimant cannot return to her past
Because Claim 2 asserts error at Step Five, the Court will address it last, as Claims 1 and
3 assert errors in previous steps of the ALJ’s analysis.
relevant work, the ALJ moves on to step five.
In determining whether [a claimant] can return to her past relevant
work, the ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC using all relevant
medical and other evidence in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). That
is, the ALJ must determine if the claimant is limited to a particular
work level. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567. Once the ALJ assesses the
claimant's RFC and determines that the claimant cannot return to her
prior relevant work, the ALJ moves on to the fifth, and final, step.
Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238-39 (footnote omitted).
“ ‘Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other
acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of
[the claimant's] impairment(s), including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and
prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the
claimant's] physical or mental restrictions.’ ”
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178-79
(quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2)). ALJs “must always carefully
consider medical source opinions about any issue…” Social Security Ruling (SSR)
96-5P (S.S.A. July 2, 1996).9
“In assessing medical opinions, the ALJ must consider a number of factors in
determining how much weight to give to each medical opinion, including (1)
whether the physician has examined the claimant; (2) the length, nature, and
extent of a treating physician's relationship with the claimant; (3) the medical
evidence and explanation supporting the physician's opinion; (4) how consistent the
“ ‘Social Security Rulings are agency rulings published under the authority of the
Commissioner of Social Security and are binding on all components of the Administration.’
Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 531 n.9, 110 S. Ct. 885, 891 n.9, 107 L. Ed. 2d 967 (1990)
(internal quotations omitted). Although SSA rulings are not binding on this Court, we
accord the rulings deference. See Fair v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1466, 1468–69 (11th Cir. 1994).”
De Olazabal v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Com'r, 579 F. App’x 827, 832 (11th Cir. 2014) (per curiam)
physician's opinion is with the record as a whole; and (5) the physician's
These factors apply to both examining and non-examining
physicians.” Eyre v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 586 F. App'x 521, 523 (11th Cir.
Sept. 30, 2014) (per curiam) (unpublished) (internal citations and quotation marks
omitted) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) & (e), 416.927(c) & (e)). “[T]he ALJ must
state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the
reasons therefor.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d
278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam)). However, the ALJ “may reject the opinion
of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.” Bloodsworth,
703 F.2d at 1240. Accord, e.g., Anderson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 427 F. App'x 761,
763 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (unpublished).
Robinson argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinions of Dr.
Huey Kidd (“Dr. Kidd”), who administered Robinson “a physical evaluation…on
May 27, 2009[,]” and was considered a “consultative examiner,” and Dr. Donald
Blanton (“Dr. Blanton”), who, at the request of Robinson’s attorney performed a
mental examination of Robinson on September 9, 2009. (R. 58, 62).10
Per the ALJ’s opinion when determining Robinson’s RFC at Step Four, Dr.
Kidd’s “[p]hysical evaluation of [Robinson] was generally unremarkable except she
was unable to heel walk due to pain in her heels and her ability to squat was
Robinson has not argued that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of a treating
physician. See Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (“Absent good cause, an ALJ is to give the
medical opinions of treating physicians substantial or considerable weight.” (quotation
somewhat limited because of reported limitation. Dr. Kidd’s impression included
foot pain, hypertension, and diabetes.” (R. 58). The ALJ had previously found that
Robinson’s “bilateral foot pain of uncertain etiology” constituted a severe
impairment but that her hypertension and diabetes were “non-severe” impairments,
as medical evidence had indicated both of these impairments were “well controlled.”
(R. 53, 58).
In addition, Dr. Kidd “completed a Medical Source Statement of Ability to do
Work-Related Activities (Physical)[,]” in which he
opined that the claimant could frequently lift 20 pounds, frequently
carry 10 pounds, and occasionally carry 20 pounds; she is unable to sit,
but she can stand for 5 minutes at one time and 30 minutes in an 8hour workday and walk 30 minutes in an 8-hour workday; she can
continuously reach, handle, finger, feel, and push/pull bilaterally; she
can continuously use her feet for operation of foot controls bilaterally;
she can frequently balance and stoop, occasionally climb stairs and
ramps, kneel and crouch, and never climb ladders or scaffolds and
crawl; and; she can tolerate continuous exposure to extreme heat and
vibrations, frequent exposure to humidity and wetness, pulmonary
irritants, and extreme cold, occasional exposure to moving mechanical
parts, and no exposure to unprotected heights or operating a motor
(R. 58 (citing “Exhibits 11F & 26F” [R. 571-79, 671-88])).
The ALJ found that Dr. Kidd’s medical opinion was “not entitled to
significant weight because it is internally inconsistent[,]” explaining: “Specifically,
his opinion is inconsistent concerning the limitations he gave for lifting and
carrying, and concerning the limitations he gave for sitting, standing, and walking
because there is no explanation in the diagnostic findings as to why the claimant
can frequently stoop but never sit.” (R. 63). The ALJ further discredited Dr. Kidd’s
opinion by finding that “the subjective complaints of foot pain reported by the
claimant at the evaluation are inconsistent with the claimant’s longitudinal
treatment history and the findings of her orthopedic evaluation in Exhibit 30F [R.
While Robinson “does not believe Dr. Kidd’s opinion is inconsistent with the
record as a whole,” she initially argues that, if “the ALJ indicated he felt there was
an inconsistency, he had a duty to recontact Dr. Kidd, but made no effort at all,
despite 20 CFR § 404.1520b.” (Doc. 18 at 4). The ALJ cannot be faulted for failing
to heed this regulation, however, as § 404.1520b and its SSI counterpart, 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920b,11 did not take effect until March 26, 2012, after the ALJ had already
issued his determination. See Gray v. Astrue, No. 2:10-CV-507, 2012 WL 1521259,
at *3 n.1 (E.D. Pa. May 1, 2012) (“The SSA eliminated § 404.1512(e) effective March
26, 2012, thus ‘modifying the requirement to recontact [a claimant's] medical
source(s),’ ostensibly to give ‘adjudicators more flexibility in determining how best
to obtain this information.’ See generally How We Collect and Consider Evidence of
Disability, 77 Fed. Reg. 10,651 (Feb. 23, 2012). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920b explains the
new protocol for recontacting medical sources.”).
Even if § 416.920b had applied, however, the Commissioner correctly notes
that the regulation “does not require an ALJ to recontact a medical source
whenever the source’s opinion contains inconsistencies.” (Doc. 19 at 6). Instead, the
regulation states: “If any of the evidence in your case record, including any medical
As the Commissioner correctly notes (see Doc. 19 at 5 n.4), because this appeal involves
only a claim for SSI, § 404.1520b is inapplicable.
opinion(s), is inconsistent, we will weigh the relevant evidence and see whether we
can determine whether you are disabled based on the evidence we have.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920b(b). Thus, a mere determination that a medical opinion is inconsistent
does not require an ALJ to recontact the source. An ALJ, among other courses of
action, “may recontact [the claimant’s] treating physician, psychologist, or other
medical source” if “the evidence is consistent but [the ALJ] ha[s] insufficient
evidence to determine whether [the claimant is] disabled, or if after weighing the
evidence [the ALJ determine[s he] cannot reach a conclusion about whether [the
claimant is] disabled
Id. § 416.920b(c)(1) (emphasis added).
Even then, the
regulation gives ALJs discretion in “determin[ing] the best way to resolve [an]
inconsistency or insufficiency[,]…depend[ing] on the nature of the inconsistency or
insufficiency.” Id. § 416.920b(c).
The version of
20 C.F.R. § 416.912 effective at the time of Robinson’s
hearings and the ALJ’s issuance of his unfavorable decision provided: “When the
evidence we receive from your treating physician or psychologist or other medical
source is inadequate for us to determine whether you are disabled, we will need
additional information to reach a determination or a decision. To obtain the
information…[w]e will first recontact your treating physician or psychologist or
other medical source to determine whether the additional information we need is
readily available. We will seek additional evidence or clarification from your
medical source when the report from your medical source contains a conflict or
ambiguity that must be resolved…” 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(e)(1) (effective August 1,
2006 to November 11, 2010). See also Couch v. Astrue, 267 F. App'x 853, 855 (11th
Cir. Feb. 29, 2008) (per curiam) (unpublished) (“Medical sources should be
recontacted when the evidence received from that source is inadequate to determine
whether the claimant is disabled.” (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(e) and 416.912(e));
Gray, 2012 WL 1521259, at *3 n.1 (“All the relevant events in this matter took place
under the ‘old’ regulations cited by the SSA, and our analysis proceeds
accordingly.”). The duty to recontact under the old version of § 416.912(e) did not
arise if, overall, substantial record evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that
a claimant is not disabled. Cf. Couch, 267 F. App’x at 855-56 (“Couch next argues
that the ALJ was required…to recontact Dr. Figueroa after deciding that his
opinion was without record support, and the ALJ's failure to seek clarification of the
reasons underlying Dr. Figueroa's disability opinion requires reversal… The record
reflects that the duty to recontact did not arise here. First, substantial evidence,
including the evaluations of two other consulting psychologists, Couch's reported
daily activities, and Dr. Figueroa's own treatment notes, supported the ALJ's
determination that Couch was not disabled. Additionally, it appears that the ALJ
was in possession of all of Dr. Figueroa's medical records, and the information
contained therein was adequate to enable the ALJ to determine that Couch was not
disabled. Therefore, there was no need for additional information or clarification.”).
Robinson further argues that “there are no other medical opinions in the
record that the ALJ determined should be given substantial weight” and that, “[b]y
simply rejecting [Dr. Kidd’s] medical opinion, with no other existing medical
opinion, the ALJ improperly p[laced [sic] himself in the shoes of the physician.”
(Doc. 18 at 13 (citing Marbury v. Sullivan, 957 F.2d 837, 840-41 (11th Cir. 1992)
(Johnson, J., concurring) (“Although Social Security disability benefits must be
reserved only for those who qualify to receive them, an ALJ may not arrogate the
power to act as both judge and physician. The ALJ in this case clearly exceeded his
legal authority by allowing his personal views regarding the non-physical source of
Marbury's seizure disorder to interfere with his responsibilities to administer fairly
the Social Security disability programs. On remand, let us hope that the ALJ
refrains from playing doctor and instead satisfies himself with merely serving as a
The Court finds that the ALJ’s decision not to credit Dr. Kidd’s opinion was
rational because substantial record evidence supported a contrary conclusion.13 At
her first SSA hearing, Robinson testified to experiencing foot pain, rating the pain
Robinson fails to note in her brief that the proposition for which she cites Marbury is
not found in the majority opinion but is instead from the specially concurring opinion of
a single panel member. While certainly forceful and persuasive, the specially
concurring opinion is not binding precedent, and Robinson’s failure to identify it as such
could be deemed misleading (though the undersigned will assume mere negligence in
this instance). Cf. Langley v. Astrue, 777 F. Supp. 2d 1250, 1257-58 (N.D. Ala. 2011)
(finding that the plaintiff’s attorney made an “obvious attempt to mislead the court” by
characterizing a quotation from a former Fifth Circuit opinion as binding precedent,
where the quotation was merely descriptive of another circuit’s holding and, when put
in context with the surrounding language in the opinion, did not support the
proposition for which the plaintiff cited it); Rohm & Haas Co. v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co.,
Civil Action No. 07-584, 2008 WL 2517176, at *2 n.4 (E.D. Pa. June 23, 2008) (“While
both parties cited Gallatin Fuels in their briefs, neither party disclosed that the case is
non-precedential. In fact, Rohm and Haas stated that ‘Gallatin Fuels controls this
case.’…Under the circumstances, while the case is informative, to say that it is
‘controlling’ is at least an intemperate overstatement.”).
The Court expresses no opinion on the ALJ’s alternative rejection of Dr. Kidd’s opinion as
at “10/10” but at “8 to 9/10” after she started wearing a brace. (R. 60). At her
follow-up hearing, Robinson testified that she “continues to wear the brace on her
left foot because without the brace, her foot ‘balls up’ and she cannot walk” and that
she “walks with a limp because of her foot problem.” (Id.). Robinson also testified
that she “takes Tramadol three times daily for pain,” which “causes her to be
‘spaced out.’ ” (Id.).
The ALJ found Robinson’s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence
and limiting effects of” her foot pain to be “not credible to the extent they are
inconsistent with” the ALJ’s RFC assessment. (Id.). The ALJ noted that, despite
Robinson’s testimony of foot pain at her SSA hearings, she, “on multiple occasions,
denied joint pain or swelling” and “failed to even mention foot pain on numerous
occasions…” (R. 60-61 (citing Exhibits 5F [R. 534-46] & 30F [R. 700-15])). Noting
that “symptoms alone do not establish disability unless medical signs and
laboratory findings show there is a medically determinable impairment that could
reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged[,]” the ALJ further found:
The record reflects excessive symptomology and not enough pathology;
not only has [Robinson] only intermittently complained of her
symptoms, nerve conduction studies were negative and x-rays showed
no major arthritic changes. Additionally, her station and gait were
also noted as normal (Exhibits 26F [Dr. Kidd’s report] & 30F [Dr.
Suddath’s report]), she was able to stand on the leg independently, and
she was able to heel and toe walk (Exhibit 30F). Yet, at the
consultative examination, the claimant stated she was unable to heel
walk due to reported pain (Exhibit 30F). It is also noted that the
claimant also reported that she could sit in a chair “as long as I like”
(Exhibit 30F), but yet she testified that she is limited to sitting for 10
minutes. However, at numerous times, the claimant has also reported
that she sits on the sofa most of the day, watching television.
Although the inconsistent information throughout the record may not
be the result of a conscious intention to mislead, nevertheless the
inconsistencies suggest that the information provided by the claimant
generally may not be entirely reliable.
Dr. Kidd’s medical evaluation encapsulates the ALJ’s complaint of “excessive
symptomology and not enough pathology.”
Dr. Kidd cited no medical signs or
laboratory tests to support his assessment (with regard to Robinson’s diabetes and
hypertension, as well as her foot pain), and his opinions appear to be based solely on
Robinson’s subjective complaints regarding her symptoms. (R. 572). See 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.927(c)(3) (“The more a medical source presents relevant evidence to support
an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, the more weight we
will give that opinion. The better an explanation a source provides for an opinion,
the more weight we will give that opinion.”). See Markuske v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
572 F. App'x 762, 766 n.3 (11th Cir. July 17, 2014) (per curiam) (unpublished) (“ ‘A
treating physician's report may be discounted when it is not accompanied by
objective medical evidence or is wholly conclusory.’ Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004) (quotation marks omitted). Thus, an ALJ may
discount a treating physician's opinion where it ‘appears to be based primarily on
[the claimant's] subjective complaints of pain.’ Id.”); Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., No. 14-11950, 2015 WL 795089, at *5 (11th Cir. Feb. 26, 2015) (per curiam)
(unpublished) (“The ALJ articulated good cause for rejecting [treating physician
]Dr. Kemp's opinion that Costigan was disabled to the point that she could not
work[ because, inter alia] his findings were based on Costigan's subjective reports
and he had no objective medical records on which to base his opinion[, and] his
opinion was not well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques…Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's stated reasons,
first, because the physician's opinion did not appear to be based on any objective
medical evidence, such as medically acceptable clinical diagnostic techniques or
laboratory findings, and, second, no such evidence was part of the record before the
ALJ. Instead, he provided only conclusory statements that certain activities would
aggravate Costigan's chronic neck and low back pain or based his findings on
Costigan's self-reports of symptoms.” (citations omitted)). Moreover, while Dr. Kidd
observed that Robinson was “unable to heel walk due to pain in her heels,” he did
observe that she was “able to toe walk” and “ambulates without difficulty, without
any limp.” (R. 573).
The ALJ also discredited Dr. Kidd’s opinion because he found that Robinson’s
subjective complaints of foot pain to Dr. Kidd were inconsistent with Robinson’s
longitudinal treatment history and the findings of another orthopedic evaluation.
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4) (“Generally, the more consistent an opinion is with the
record as a whole, the more weight we will give to that opinion.”).
orthopedic evaluation was found at administrative record “Exhibit 30F” (R. 700-15),
which, per the ALJ, was a January 21, 2010 “evaluation of left leg pain” performed
by Dr. William Suddath of University Orthopaedic Clinic & Spine Center, to whom
Robinson was referred after she reported “complaints of left leg/foot pain” while
receiving treatment at Hale County Hospital. (R. 57). Dr. Suddath’s evaluation
occurred approximately eight months after Dr. Kidd’s. The ALJ summarized Dr.
Suddath’s findings as follows:
X-rays of the left knee were performed and showed lateral position of
the patella, no major arthritic changes, and no femoral shaft
abnormalities. Dr. Suddath diagnosed left patellofemoral syndrome
with radial tibial band tightness.
He provided medication
management and referred the claimant to physical therapy. However,
on follow-up the claimant reported that she attended only one therapy
visit because she injured her other knee and did not feel that she
should do therapy on her left knee. It was noted at this visit, that the
claimant’s gait and station were normal and she had no instability.
She was advised to return after completing physical therapy, but no
additional visits are noted in the record.
Unlike her evaluation with Dr. Kidd, at Dr. Suddath’s evaluation Robinson
did not report foot pain, instead describing the pain “as being above the knee and in
the lateral aspect of the knee.” (R. 707). Dr. Suddath accordingly performed x-rays
of Robinson’s left knee but not her foot. (R. 57, 707). Dr. Suddath did not diagnose
Robinson for foot pain and observed that Robinson could stand independently on
her left leg, that her “gait and station were normal” with “no instability[,]” and that
she was “able to heel and toe walk.” (R. 707).
In sum, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision to reject Dr. Kidd’s
medical opinions because those opinions were based only on Robinson’s subjective
complaints, which the ALJ found not credible regarding their intensity; because
those opinions were not supported by any citation to medical signs or lab findings;
and because other record evidence was contrary to his conclusions. Thus, the ALJ
did not err in assigning little weight to Dr. Kidd’s opinions.
Robinson also argues that the ALJ erred in giving less weight to Dr.
Blanton’s opinion than that of another examining psychologist, Dr. Stutts, “who did
not review school records and performed no IQ tests.” (Doc. 18 at 4-5). She further
argues that, “[b]ecause the ALJ cherry picked facts from the record to support his
finding that Ms. Robinson did not meet or equal Listing 12.05(c), and because the
record is silent on those facts that would support a finding that she does meet or
equal Listing 12.05(c), his decision is not supported by substantial evidence and
should be reversed.” (Id. at 5).
To establish a disability under section 12.05(C), a claimant must
present evidence of a valid verbal, performance, or full-scale I.Q. score
of between 60 and 70 inclusive, and of a physical or other mental
impairment imposing additional and significant work-related
limitation of function. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 §
12.05(C) (1992). In addition, the general introduction on “mental
retardation and autism” provides that a section 12.05(C) claimant
must demonstrate that the retardation is a lifelong condition which
manifested itself before age twenty-two. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1, § 12.05 (1992).
Generally, a claimant meets the criteria for presumptive disability
under section 12.05(C) when the claimant presents a valid I.Q. score of
60 to 70 inclusive, and evidence of an additional mental or physical
impairment that has more than “minimal effect” on the claimant's
ability to perform basic work activities. See Edwards by Edwards v.
Heckler, 755 F.2d 1513, 1517 (11th Cir. 1985)…[H]owever,…a valid
I.Q. score need not be conclusive of mental retardation where the I.Q.
score is inconsistent with other evidence in the record on the claimant's
daily activities and behavior. Popp v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 1497, 1499
(11th Cir. 1986) (rejecting a claim of section 12.05(C) mental
retardation where the claimant's I.Q. score of 69 was inconsistent with
evidence that he had a two-year college associate's degree, was
enrolled in a third year of college as a history major, and had worked
The ALJ’s September 10, 2010 opinion applied this standard in evaluating § 12.05(C)
criteria (see R. 55).
in various technical jobs such as an administrative clerk, statistical
clerk, and an algebra teacher). Although the ALJ is allowed some
leeway to evaluate other evidence when determining the validity of an
I.Q. score, an ALJ may not consider a claimant's age, education, and
work experience after the ALJ accepts the I.Q. score as valid and finds
that the claimant meets or equals the criteria of a listed impairment.
See Ambers v. Heckler, 736 F.2d 1467, 1470 (11th Cir. 1984)
(“consideration of the fact that [claimant] could return to her past work
is not a relevant inquiry once she has met the Listing of Impairments
in Appendix 1”); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992). Accord Perkins v. Comm'r,
Soc. Sec. Admin., 553 F. App'x 870, 872-73 (11th Cir. Jan. 22, 2014) (per curiam)
Dr. Blanton administered an IQ test and reported a full-scale IQ score of 60
for Robinson, placing her “in the mild range of mental retardation at the time of
testing” – September 9, 2009. (R. 58). Dr. Blanton also administered a test for
depression that placed Robinson in the “severely depressed range.” (R. 59). Dr.
Blanton concluded that Robinson was “functionally illiterate” and diagnosed “major
depression worsened by chronic pain and chronic illness, mild mental retardation,
and a global assessment of functioning” representing “[s]erious symptoms (e.g.,
suicidal ideation, severe obsessional rituals, frequent shoplifting) OR serious
impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning (e.g., no friends, unable to
keep job).” (Id.). Dr. Blanton also opined:
The claimant has marked limitation that seriously interfere [sic] with
her ability to perform work-related activities on a day-to-day basis in a
regular work setting the following areas: understand and remember
simple instructions; carry out simple instructions; remember detailed
or complex instructions; remember detailed or complex instructions;
use judgment in detailed or complex work-related instructions; and,
maintain attention, concentration, and pace for at least two hours. Dr.
Blanton also opined that the claimant’s mental retardation has been a
lifelong condition and her depression has been present at this level for
at least one year. It was also his opinion that the claimant’s condition
is likely to deteriorate if she is placed under stress, especially that of a
(R. 58 (internal citation omitted)).
In determining that Robinson had not satisfied the criteria under § 12.05(C),
the ALJ acknowledged that Dr. Blanton’s report would appear “at first glance” to
satisfy the criteria. (See R. 55). However, the ALJ found that Dr. Blanton’s report
was “entitled to no more than substantial weight[,]” that “the other documentary
evidence of record does not demonstrate or support an onset of [an] impairment
before age 22 as also required by listing 12.05[,]” and that “the documentary
evidence of record, including the claimant’s personal and work history, does not
demonstrate deficits in adaptive functioning.” (Id.).
Robinson claims that the ALJ rejected Dr. Blanton’s opinion “mainly because
it was inconsistent with the opinion of Dr. Stutts, who did not review school records
and performed no IQ tests.” (Doc. 18 at 5). Dr. Stutts, another examining mental
health professional, found Robinson’s mental status and cognitive functioning to be
“generally unremarkable,” estimated her IQ to be “low average to borderline,”
opined that her abilities to understand, remember, and carry out instructions and to
respond appropriately to others was only “moderately impaired,” and found that her
anxiety symptoms were “in remission.” (R. 58, 62).
As the Commissioner correctly notes, however, the ALJ noted that Dr.
Blanton’s opinions were inconsistent with other record evidence as well. The ALJ
noted that “school reports within the record” included an IQ score of 75 at age
seven, based on the same test performed by Dr. Blanton; and scores of 75 and 80 in
the sixth and seventh grades, respectively, based on a different IQ test. (R. 60).
This evidence was contrary to Dr. Blanton’s medical opinion that Robinson’s mental
retardation was “a lifelong condition,” despite Dr. Blanton himself having reviewed
the school record IQ scores. The ALJ also noted that record evidence reflected that
Robinson had completed high school and received a regular diploma (though she did
attend special education classes), that she completed the “lengthy questionnaires
required in conjunction with [her SSI application] without any assistance, and that
she reported on multiple occasions that she reads newspapers. (R. 60-61). This
evidence is contrary to Dr. Blanton’s determination that Robinson is “functionally
illiterate.” The ALJ specifically noted these inconsistencies in assigning less weight
to Dr. Blanton’s opinion.
(See R. 62 (noting that Dr. Blanton’s opinion and
evaluation stated that Robinson “has multiple marked limitations and that her
mental retardation has been ‘life-long,’ even though the education records he
reviewed reported IQ’s from 75 to 80”). The ALJ also found significant “the lack of a
mental illness treatment history” to corroborate Dr. Blanton’s opinions regarding
the length and severity of her mental impairments, and he noted that Dr. Blanton’s
opinion that Robinson was unable to understand and remember simple instructions
was not consistent with record evidence indicating “her ability to remain employed
for significant periods of time.” (R. 62). Thus, substantial record evidence supports
the ALJ’s clearly articulated reasons to give less weight to Dr. Blanton’s opinions.
See Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240 (an ALJ “may reject the opinion of any physician
when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion”).
Substantial evidence also supports the ALJ’s determination that Robinson
did not satisfy the criteria of § 12.05(C). While “an IQ score of 60 through 70
establishes a rebuttable presumption that impairment due to mental retardation
was present before age 22 because IQ scores remain fairly constant throughout
life[,]” Perkins, 553 F. App'x at 873 (citing Hodges v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1265,
1268–69 (11th Cir. 2001)), the ALJ specifically noted the school record IQ scores
that were outside of this range, thus rebutting the presumption afforded to Dr.
Blanton’s IQ test.
Moreover, a “diagnosis of mental retardation is
insufficient, standing alone, to meet Listing 12.05(C)[,]” and “[a] valid IQ score does
not have to be conclusive of mental retardation where the IQ score is inconsistent
with other record evidence regarding the claimant's daily living activities and
behavior.” Perkins, 553 F. App'x at 873-74 (citing Lowery, 979 F.2d at 837; 20
C.F.R. § 416.925(d) (explaining an impairment “cannot meet the criteria of a listing
based only on a diagnosis,” as a claimant must show a “medically determinable
impairment[ ] that satisfies all of the criteria of the listing” (emphasis added)).
Here, the ALJ found that “the documentary evidence of record, including
[Robinson]’s personal and work history, does not demonstrate deficits in adaptive
(R. 55). 15
Specifically, the ALJ noted that Robinson “lives
“While an ALJ may not consider a claimant's work experience after accepting an IQ score
as valid and finding that the claimant meets Listing 12.05, here the ALJ determined that
[Robinson’s] adaptive functioning precluded h[er] from meeting Listing 12.05(C).
Accordingly, the ALJ did not err by considering evidence of [Robinson’s] work experience
independently without a highly supportive living arrangement[,] is able function
independently outside the area of her home[,]…cares for her own personal needs,”
and has “a significant work history.” (R. 55, 63). Moreover, Robinson was noted to
have worked as a cook, small products packer, and sewing machine operator, all
“low-end…semiskilled” jobs. (R. 107, 137). Robinson has not argued error in any of
these findings, which indicate that her mental impairments had no more than a
minimal effect on her ability to perform basic work activities. See Lowery, 979 F.2d
at 837.16 Thus, the ALJ did not err in assign less weight to Dr. Blanton’s opinions,
and adaptive functioning.” Perkins, 553 F. App'x at 873 (internal citations omitted).
Robinson argues that, “rather than discrediting Dr. Blanton’s medical opinion and
the inclusive IQ scores without any basis in a conflicting medical opinion, the ALJ should
have ordered a consultative examination to quiet any doubts the ALJ held about the
claimant’s mental disability.” (Doc. 18 at 5 (citing Long v. Colvin, No. 7:12-CV-3715-KOB,
2014 WL 1338503, at *4 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 31, 2014)).
First, “the ALJ did not discredit the validity of [Dr. Blanton’s] IQ tests, but only
concluded that [Robinson] did not suffer from mental retardation as it is defined under
Listing 12.05(C) because h[er] deficits in adaptive functioning were not reflective of mental
retardation.” Perkins, 553 F. App'x at 873.
Second, Long is distinguishable from the present case. There, the district court
found that the ALJ had “simply reject[ed] a medical opinion regarding mental functioning,
with no other existing medical opinion…” Long, 2014 WL 1338503, at *15. Here, the ALJ
gave “substantial weight” to Dr. Blanton’s opinion but assigned more weight to another
medical opinion, Dr. Stutts’s. As was noted in Long,
[w]hen the evidence shows that the claimant has a mental impairment, the
ALJ may determine that the claimant is not disabled “ ‘only if the [ALJ] has
made every reasonable effort’ to obtain the opinion of a ‘qualified psychiatrist
or psychologist.’ “ McCall v. Bowen, 846 F.2d 1317, 1320 (11th Cir.1988)
(quoting 42 U.S.C.A. § 421(h)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.903(e). Because the
ALJ has a duty to develop the medical record fully and fairly, “it is reversible
error for an ALJ not to order a consultive examination when such an
evaluation is necessary for him to make an informed decision.” Holladay v.
Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1209–10 (11th Cir. 1988); see also Reeves v. Heckler,
734 F.2d 519, 522 n .1 (11th Cir.1984).
2014 WL 1338503, at *4. Here, the ALJ had the opinions of two qualified mental health
professionals, and, because of their inconsistencies, had to make a decision regarding the
and the Court finds that Robinson is due no relief on her claims of error in Claim 1.
At Step Four, the ALJ determines the claimant’s residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). See Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1238-39. A claimant’s RFC “is the most [she] can
still do despite [her] limitations[,]” and an ALJ “assess [the] residual functional
capacity based on all the relevant evidence in [the claimant’s] case record.” 20
C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1).
Moreover, the ALJ must consider all known medically
determinable impairments, including those determined not to be “severe” under the
applicable SSA regulations. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).
In determining Robinson’s RFC, the ALJ noted:
The record reflects that the claimant has a significant history of
treatment for diabetes. Early on, the claimant’s diabetes were noted
as uncontrolled, but non-compliance was also noted. However, after
continued treatment, the record reflects controlled diabetes. The
claimant attended routine follow-up visits, including laboratory
testing. Additionally, nerve conduction studies were performed and
returned normal. There is little, if any, evidence of complications
related to the claimant’s diabetes, and on the whole, the record reflects
that she is well controlled. Therefore,…the undersigned finds that the
claimant’s diabetes is non-severe.
(R. 57 (record citations omitted)).
Robinson argues that the ALJ’s RFC failed to adequately account for the
effects of her “uncontrolled diabetes mellitus with complaints of dizziness and
neuropathy in her lower extremities.” (Doc. 18 at 10).
However, the Court finds
that Robison has failed to demonstrate error in this regard.
weight to assign to each. Robinson has provided no reason (other than that she disagrees
with the ALJ’s decision) to indicate than another examination was necessary for him to
make an informed decision.
Robinson cites numerous record exhibits for the general proposition that
“[t]he records are replete with references of this condition and its impact on her
life.” (Id. (citing R. 218, 220, 234-238, 241-243, 247, 378, 381, 397-399, 414, 434,
436, 438-441, 443-448, 450-457, 508, 512, 535, 539, 572, 580, 693, 749)). However,
her more specific contentions – that “there was no consideration of the decreased
sensation in claimant’s lower extremities, no consideration for the fatigue to which
she testified nor any consideration of her need for frequent (7-8 in a day) bathroom
breaks[,]” and that “the ALJ’s specific findings….include any mention of the
diagnoses made by Dr. Delgado, Dr. Timberlake or Dr. Sudduth with regard to
neuropathy and glaucoma, nor does he make any mention of the complaints of
dizziness found throughout the record” (id.) – are bereft of any record citations;
regardless, Robinson has failed to show that the ALJ failed to take this evidence
into account. Essentially, Robinson invites the Court to reexamine and reweight
the record evidence regarding her diabetes, which this Court may not do.
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178. “Furthermore, contrary to [Robinson]’s contention that
the ALJ ignored evidence favorable to [Robison], “there is no rigid requirement that
the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision, so long as the
ALJ's decision ... is not a broad rejection which is not enough to enable [a reviewing
court] to conclude that the ALJ considered [the claimant's] medical condition as a
whole.” Mitchell v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2014)
(quoting Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)
(quotation and brackets omitted))). “The ALJ's decision in this case was not a broad
rejection and was sufficient to enable…this Court to conclude the ALJ considered
[Robison]'s medical condition as a whole.”
Thus, the Court also rejects
Robinson’s claims of error at Claim 3.
“At step five, the Commissioner must determine that significant numbers of
jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. An ALJ may
make this determination…by obtaining the testimony of a vocational expert[,]”
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1180 (citations omitted), as occurred here. In response to the
ALJ’s RFC assessment of “unskilled” for Robinson, the vocational expert (VE)
testified that Robinson “would be able to perform the requirements of
representative occupations such as Carding Machine Operator (DOT #681.685030, sedentary, unskilled, 66,000 jobs in the national economy, and 1,000 jobs in the
regional economy), Napper Tender (DOT #585.685-010, sedentary, unskilled, 65,000
jobs in the national economy, and 1,000 jobs in the regional economy), and Small
Parts Assembler (DOT #706.685-074, sedentary, unskilled, 142,000 jobs in the
national economy, and 1,400 jobs in the regional economy.” (R. 64, 139).18 When
asked by the ALJ whether his testimony was consistent with the DOT, the VE
responded: “For the most part, yes, sir[,]” noting that he had used his experience in
addressing the ALJ’s “sit/stand option” hypothetical because it is not addressed by
the DOT. (R. 141). The ALJ found the VE’s testimony to be “consistent with the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles
The ALJ appears to have relied only on the VE testimony from Robinson’s second SSA
hearing. As such, the Court need not address Robinson’s claims of error in VE testimony
from the first hearing.
information contained in the” DOT. (R. 64).
Robinson argues that the VE’s testimony is flawed, and the ALJ erred in
relying on it, because the DOT lists the jobs of napper tender and small parts
assembler as each having a “specific vocational preparation” (SVP) time of 3, which
corresponds to “semi-skilled” rather than “unskilled” work. See SSR 00-4P (S.S.A.
Dec. 4, 2000).
At Step Five,
“[W]hen the VE's testimony conflicts with the DOT, the VE's testimony
‘trumps' the DOT.” Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1229–30 (11th Cir.
1999). When an apparent conflict between the VE's testimony and the
DOT arises, however, the ALJ “must elicit a reasonable explanation for
the conflict before relying on the VE['s testimony].” See SSR 00–4p; 65
Fed. Reg. 75759 (Dec. 4, 2000). The ALJ must also “[e]xplain ... how
any conflict that has been identified was resolved.” Id.
Leonard v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 409 F. App'x 298, 300-01 (11th Cir. 2011) (per
curiam) (unpublished). Accord Warren v. Astrue, 830 F. Supp. 2d 1369, 1374 (S.D.
The Commissioner does not attempt to argue that there was no conflict
between the VE’s testimony and the DOT, or that the ALJ adequately resolved the
conflict. Rather, the Commissioner asserts “case law holds that an ALJ commits no
harmful error under these circumstances where at least one of the jobs the ALJ
found was available to Plaintiff involves no inconsistencies.” (Doc. 19 at 12 (citing
Williams v. Astrue, No. 208-CV-477-FTM-29SPC, 2009 WL 2045339, at *2 (M.D.
Fla. July 8, 2009)).
As such, because Robinson “does not object to the carding
machine operator position, and a review of the record and DOT shows that this
position bears no inconsistencies with the ALJ’s RFC or the DOT[,]…the ALJ’s error
in citing the other jobs as available, if any, is harmless.” (Id. at 13).
The Court finds that,
[e]ven assuming arguendo that the ALJ incorrectly found that the VE's
testimony was consistent with the DOT, such error was harmless. See
Diorio v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 726, 728 (11th Cir. 1983) (applying
harmless error analysis to ALJ's incorrect statements that were
irrelevant to whether claimant had a severe impairment). In this
Circuit, a VE's testimony trumps the DOT to the extent the two are
inconsistent. See Jones[ v. Apfel], 190 F.3d at 1229–30. The VE opined
that the ALJ's hypothetical person could perform these three jobs. The
ALJ was permitted to base his findings about these three jobs
exclusively on the VE's testimony, irrespective of any inconsistency
with the DOT, and was not required to seek further explanation. See
Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 423 F. App'x 936, 939 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam)
(unpublished).19 Accord Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 246 F. App'x 660, 661-62
(11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (unpublished) (“Even assuming that an inconsistency
existed between the testimony of the vocational expert and the DOT, the ALJ did
not err when, without first resolving the alleged conflict, he relied on the testimony
of the vocational expert. Our precedent establishes that the testimony of a
vocational expert ‘trumps’ an inconsistent provision of the DOT in this Circuit.
(citing Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d at 1229–30)); Hurtado v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 425 F.
“SSR 00–4p…provides that “[n]either the DOT nor the [VE's testimony] automatically
‘trumps' ” and instructs the ALJ to “elicit a reasonable explanation” for a conflict between
the two before relying on the VE's testimony. SSR 00–04p, 2000 WL 1898704 (Dec. 4, 2000).
Social Security Rulings are not binding on this Court. See B.B. v. Schweiker, 643 F.2d 1069,
1071 (5th Cir. Unit B Apr. 1981); see also Stein v. Reynolds Sec., Inc., 667 F.2d 33, 34 (11th
Cir. 1982) (providing that [the Eleventh Circuit is] bound by decisions issued by Unit B
panels of the former Fifth Circuit). To the extent SSR 00–4p conflicts with Jones[ v. Apfel],
[this Court is] bound by Jones…” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 423 F. App'x at 939 n.4.
App'x 793, 796 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (unpublished).
Moreover, Williams v. Astrue, 2009 WL 2045339 (M.D. Fla. July 8, 2009), to
which the Commissioner has cited, found that where “one of the three jobs…bears
no inconsistency between the Vocational Expert evidence and the DOT, the error
was harmless and the ALJ's decision can be upheld if the number of available jobs
is sufficient to satisfy the Commissioner's burden at Step 5.” 2009 WL 2045339, at
*3 (citing Martin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 170 F. App’x 369, 374 (6th Cir. 2006)
(unpublished) (“[E]ven if the two positions about which there were inconsistencies
had been excluded, the ALJ still could have reasonably found that Martin could
perform the third position of assembler.”); Coleman v. Astrue, 269 F. App’x 596,
601–02 (7th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (unpublished)). Here, the VE testified, and the
ALJ accepted, that there 66,000 carding machine operator jobs in the national
economy, 1,000 of which were in the regional economy.
This constitutes a
significant number of available jobs; thus, any erroneous reliance by the ALJ on the
other two positions listed by the VE was harmless. Cf. Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d
600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987) (“The VE also testified that there are 174 [small appliance
repair] positions in the area where Allen resides. In addition to this testimony, the
record contains evidence that there are some 1,600 general appliance repair jobs in
the State of Georgia and some 80,000 such jobs nationwide… On the basis of this
testimony and the other evidence of record, we find that substantial evidence
supports the Secretary's decision.”); Martin, 170 F. App'x 369, 375 (“Contrary to
Martin's position, 870 jobs can constitute a significant number in the geographic
region. See Stewart v. Sullivan, 904 F.2d 708 (6th Cir. 1990) (125 jobs in the local
area is a significant number of jobs)); Coleman, 269 F. App'x at 602 (“We have held
that 1,400 jobs falls within the parameters of a sufficiently significant occupational
base. Lee v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 789, 794 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing cases holding that
even fewer than 750 available positions amounts to a significant occupational base).
The ALJ's failure to comply with SSR 00–4p was therefore harmless as, at the very
least, a significant number of jobs cited by the ALJ and not inconsistent with the
DOT remained available to Coleman.”).
For these reasons, the Court rejects Robinson’s claims of error at Step Five in
In accordance with the foregoing analysis, it is ORDERED that the
Commissioner’s final decision issued January 14, 2014, denying Robinson’s
application for SSI benefits is AFFIRMED under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
Final judgment shall issue separately in accordance with this Order and
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58.
DONE and ORDERED this the 2nd day of April 2015.
/s/ Katherine P. Nelson
KATHERINE P. NELSON
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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