Walls v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that the decision of the Commissioner denying plaintiff's aplications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI is AFFIRMED under sentence four of 42:405(g). Signed by Magistrate Judge Katherine P. Nelson on 9/21/2016. (srr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 15-00275-N
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Kendret Walls has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner
of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his applications for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and supplemental security income (“SSI”)
under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq.
consent of the parties, the Court has designated the undersigned Magistrate Judge
to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action, in
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D.
Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 19, 20).
Upon consideration of the parties’ briefs (Docs. 12, 13, 16), those portions of
the administrative record (Doc. 11) (hereinafter cited as “(R. [page number(s) in
lower-right corner of transcript])”) relevant to the issues raised, and the oral
argument of the parties made May 25, 2016, the Court finds that the
Commissioner’s decision is due to be AFFIRMED.
On February 6, 2012, Walls filed applications for a period of disability, DIB,
and SSI with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), 1 alleging disability
beginning January 31, 2009, later amended to December 30, 2011. 2 After his
applications were initially denied, Walls requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for the SSA, which was held on June 25, 2013.
On September 13, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Walls’s
applications, finding him “not disabled” under the Social Security Act and thus not
entitled to benefits. (See R. 19 – 33).
Walls requested review of the ALJ’s decision by the SSA’s Appeals Council.
The Commissioner’s decision on Walls’s applications became final when the Appeals
Council denied the request for review on April 7, 2015. (R. 1 – 6). On June 3, 2015,
Walls filed this action under §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the
Commissioner’s final decision. (Doc. 1).
See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“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
The Social Security Act’s general disability insurance benefits program provides income to
individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature retirement, provided they are both
insured and disabled, regardless of indigence. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Social Security
Act’s Supplemental Security Income is a separate and distinct program. 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. See 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.202–03 (2005). For DIB claims, a
claimant is eligible for benefits where she demonstrates disability on or before the last date
for which she were insured. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A) (2005).” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d
1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).
to the same extent as the Commissioner’s final determinations under section 405 of
this title.”); 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.”); Ingram v. 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.”).
Standards of Review
“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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (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))). 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 v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir.
2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239
(11th Cir. 1983))).
“ ‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the
[Commissioner]’s factual findings, we must affirm if the decision reached is
supported by substantial evidence.’ ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Martin v.
Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
“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). See also Owens v.
Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to
conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that
come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a
reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light
of all the relevant facts.”). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a
court] must…tak[e] into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the
[Commissioner’s] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).
However, the “substantial evidence” “standard of review applies only to
[Commissioner]’s conclusions of law, including determination of the proper
standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050,
1053 (11th Cir. 1986) (quotation omitted). Accord, e.g., Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679
F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982) (“Our standard of review for appeals from the
administrative denials of Social Security benefits dictates that ‘(t)he findings of the
Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive ....’
42 U.S.C.A. s 405(g) (West Supp. 1982) (emphasis added). As is plain from the
statutory language, this deferential standard of review is applicable only to findings
of fact made by the Secretary, and it is well established that no similar presumption
of validity attaches to the Secretary’s conclusions of law, including determination of
the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” (footnote and some
citations and quotation marks omitted)).
This Court “conduct[s] ‘an exacting
examination’ of these factors.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996)
(per curiam) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
“‘The [Commissioner]’s failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing
court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has
been conducted mandates reversal.’” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Cornelius
v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)). Accord Keeton v. Dep't of
Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994).
In sum, courts “review the Commissioner’s factual findings with deference
and the Commissioner’s legal conclusions with close scrutiny.” Doughty v. Apfel,
245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). See also Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208,
1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (“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).”).
Eligibility for DIB and SSI requires that the claimant be disabled. 42
U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E), 1382(a)(1)-(2). A claimant is disabled if she is
unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a
medically determinable physical or mental impairment ... which has
lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
Thornton v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 597 F. App’x 604, 609 (11th Cir. 2015) (per
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, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)(v); Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237-39).4
“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,
405 F.3d at 1211 (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
In this Circuit, “[u]npublished opinions are not considered binding precedent, but they
may be cited as persuasive authority.” 11th Cir. R. 36-2. See also Henry v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 n.1 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (“Cases printed in the Federal
Appendix are cited as persuasive authority.”).
The Court will hereinafter use “Step One,” “Step Two,” etc. when referencing individual
steps of this five-step sequential evaluation.
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, 703 F.2d at 1240 (citations omitted).
If, in Steps One through Four of the five-step evaluation, a claimant 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
claimant 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, although the “claimant 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). See also Ellison v.
Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established
that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Nevertheless, the
claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is
responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” (citations omitted)).
“This is an onerous task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe
into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts.
In determining whether a
claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citation and
Where, as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied
review of that decision, the Court “review[s] the ALJ’s decision as the
Commissioner’s final decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278. “[W]hen the [Appeals
Council] has denied review, [the Court] will look only to the evidence actually
presented to the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence.” Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998). If the
applicant attacks only the ALJ’s decision, the Court may not consider evidence that
was presented to the Appeals Council but not to the ALJ. See id. at 1324.
At Step One, the ALJ determined that Walls had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date.
At Step Two, the ALJ
determined that Walls had the following severe combination of impairments:
herniated lumbar disc; hypertension; L5-S1 moderate right paracentral disc
extrusion causing right S1 nerve root impingement and mild neuroforminal
stenosis; and obesity. (R. 24). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Walls did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the
severity of one of the specified impairments in the relevant Listing of Impairments.
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
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).
The ALJ determined that Walls had the RFC “to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)[,]” with the following limitations:
He is able to lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10
pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour
workday … The claimant would require an on demand sit/stand option
to relieve pain and discomfort and can ambulate short distances of up
to 15 minutes in duration per instance. He could frequently operate
foot controls and frequently reach overhead. He could never climb
ramps, stairs, ladders or scaffolds. He could frequently balance but
only occasionally stoop, crouch and kneel and could never crawl. He
could never be exposed to dangerous machinery, dangerous tools,
hazardous processes or unprotected heights. He can occasionally
operate a commercial motor vehicle. The claimant can be exposed
frequently to atmospheric conditions, weather, humidity, wetness, and
extreme heat. He can be exposed occasionally to vibrations and
extreme cold. He would be unable to perform assembly-line work with
production-rate pace, but could perform goal-oriented work. Any time
off task would be accommodated by normal workday breaks.
(R. 25 – 26).
Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Walls was unable to perform
any past relevant work. (R. 31). At Step Five, the ALJ, after taking testimony from
a vocational expert, found that there exist significant numbers of jobs in the
national economy that Walls can perform given his RFC, age, education, and work
experience. (R. 32 – 33). Thus, the ALJ found that Walls was not disabled under
the Social Security Act. (R. 33).
Treating Physician’s Opinion
determination may include medical opinions. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2) &
416.927(a)(2). “ ‘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)).
“There are three tiers of
medical opinion sources: (1) treating physicians; (2) nontreating, examining
physicians; and (3) nontreating, nonexamining physicians.” Himes v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 585 F. App'x 758, 762 (11th Cir. Sept. 26, 2014) (per curiam)
(unpublished) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(2), 416.927(c)(1)-(2)).
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
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)).
The ALJ “may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports
a contrary conclusion.” E.g., Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240. However,
the ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different
medical opinions and the reasons therefor. Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825
F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam). “In the absence of such a
statement, it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether
the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and
supported by substantial evidence.” Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731,
735 (11th Cir. 1981). Therefore, when the ALJ fails to “state with at
least some measure of clarity the grounds for his decision,” we will
decline to affirm “simply because some rationale might have supported
the ALJ's conclusion.” Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th
Cir.1984) (per curiam). In such a situation, “to say that [the ALJ’s]
decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication
of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine
whether the conclusions reached are rational.” Cowart, 662 F.2d at 735
(quoting Stawls v. Califano, 596 F.2d 1209, 1213 (4th Cir. 1979))
(internal quotation marks omitted).
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179.
“A ‘treating source’ (i.e., a treating physician) is a claimant's ‘own physician,
psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who provides, or has provided,[
the claimant] with medical treatment or evaluation and who has, or has had, an
ongoing treatment relationship with [the claimant].’ ” Nyberg v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 179 F. App'x 589, 591 (11th Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (unpublished) (quoting 20
C.F.R. § 404.1502). “Absent ‘good cause,’ an ALJ is to give the medical opinions of
treating physicians ‘substantial or considerable weight.’ ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at
1179 (quoting Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440). That is so because treating sources are
likely in a better position “to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a
claimant’s] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the
medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone
or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2).
exists ‘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.’ With good cause,
an ALJ may disregard a treating physician's opinion, but he ‘must clearly articulate
[the] reasons’ for doing so.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179 (quoting Phillips, 357 F.3d
at 1240-41) (internal citation omitted). See also, e.g., Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1240
(“[T]he opinion of a treating physician may be rejected when it is so brief and
conclusory that it lacks persuasive weight or where it is unsubstantiated by any
clinical or laboratory findings. Further, the Secretary may reject the opinion of any
physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.” (citation omitted)).
Walls asserts that the ALJ erred in assigning less than substantial weight to
the opinion of treating physician Dr. Maruice Fitz-Gerald provided in a Medical
Source Statement (“MSS”) completed June 4, 2012 (R. 327 – 331 [SSA Ex. 7F]),
which “opin[ed] that [Walls] was incapable of performing even sedentary work.” (R.
29). Fulfilling his duty to state with particularity the weight given to the medical
opinion and the reasons therefore, the ALJ “afforded little weight” to “Dr. FitzGerald’s conclusions in his MSS[,]” explaining as follows:
Quite contradictorily, [Dr. Fitz-Gerald] indicated that the claimant
could sit for two hours at a time uninterrupted, but then noted that the
claimant could sit no more than one hour in an 8-hour workday. Dr.
Fitz-Gerald also determined that the claimant could not stand
or walk even one hour during an 8-hour workday. He went on to
include several postural limitations and noted that the claimant would
be absent from work more than three times per month. Additionally,
he noted that the claimant’s pain was profound, intractable and
virtually incapacitating with significant side effects limiting
effectiveness of work duties.
Dr. Fitz-Gerald wrote that these limitations had affected the claimant
for three years and were supported by objective findings; however, the
undersigned does not concur. Indeed, nothing in the objective record
demonstrates the existence of the extensive limitations listed in the
MSS for even one year, nor does it support the severity of the
symptoms as indicated by Dr. Fitz-Gerald. In fact, his unexplained
rendition of the claimant’s condition as characterized in the MSS is
simply not supported by the balance of the longitudinal medical record
and, in particular, Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s own clinical observations.
Indeed, in reviewing copious treatment notes documenting the
claimant’s varying biweekly and triweekly treatment from Brent
Tidwell, D.C. between April 2012 and August 2102, the claimant never
rated his pain level above a 5 on a scale from 0 to 10 (Exhibit 9F). In
fact, by July 12, 2012 and continuing through twelve more
appointments through August 24, 2012, the claimant
consistently rated his pain as a 0 on a scale from 0 to 10, with
the only exception occurring on August 14, 2012, when he rated
it as a 2 (Id. at pgs. 81-99) (emphasis added).
The undersigned notes that the claimant denied muscle weakness on
the initial application for chiropractic treatment and reported that BC
powder, an over-the-counter medication, “calm[ed] down” his
symptoms. Additionally, although he alleged that his symptoms
resulted in him having “no life,” the claimant reported that he was
getting married later that week (Id. at pgs. 5-6) (emphasis added).
Subsequent monthly appointments with Dr. Fitz-Gerald from July
2012 – November 2012, as well as January 2013 and April – May 2013
included similar complaints and objective findings regarding the
claimant’s back and left leg. His treatment plan included injections of
Decadron and adjustment of pain medications (Exhibits 8F, 10F, 11F,
12F, and 14F).
(R. 29 – 30 (emphasis in original)).
Considering the above, it is reasonably clear that the ALJ assigned “little
weight” to Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s opinion because it was internally inconsistent (i.e.
“inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records”) and “was not bolstered by the
evidence,” both of which are sufficient “good cause” to disregard at treating
physician’s opinion. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. While Walls protests that “[t]here
is significant objective medical evidence to substantiate Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s opinion”
(Doc. 13 at 6), an ALJ’s decision need only be supported by substantial evidence,
even if the evidence preponderates against it.
Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260.
Moreover, in pressing this argument, Walls simply points to other evidence
indicating that Walls has been treated for back and hip pain and suffers from a
herniated disc causing impingement on his nerves. (Doc. 13 at 6). In rejecting Dr.
Fitz-Gerald’s opinion, however, the ALJ did not find that Walls suffers from no pain
at all, only that the record evidence did not support the severity of the limitations
Dr. Fitz-Gerald assigned to Walls based on that pain. The ALJ’s decision contains a
thorough discussion of the objective medical evidence of record that supports his
determination that the evidence did not bolster Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s opinion, and Walls
has cited no record evidence that undermines this determination.5
Accordingly, the Court OVERRULES Walls’s claim that the ALJ committed
reversible error in assigning less that substantial or considerable weight to Dr. FitzGerald’s opinion.
Walls claims the ALJ also erred in assigning “significant weight” to the
opinion of consultative examining physician Dr. R. Rex Harris. In his examination
notes, Dr. Harris remarked that Walls “states that he has been told that he has a
disc rupture but that he decided against surgery” and “that he has had x-rays which
show degenerative change of the lumbar spine.” Dr. Harris, however, stated that he
had no records supporting these representations. He then went on to state that
Walls also argues that the ALJ failed to explain how he considered the factors for
weighing medical opinions enumerated in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) and 416.927(c) (effective
Aug. 24, 2012) (previously at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d)) in assigning weight
to Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s opinion. First, Walls has cited no authority indicating that an ALJ
must explicitly discuss the §404.1527(c)/§416.927(c) factors, and the Eleventh Circuit, albeit
in an unpublished opinion, has held that “the ALJ is not required to explicitly address each
of those factors. Rather, the ALJ must provide ‘good cause’ for rejecting a treating
physician’s medical opinions.” Lawton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 431 F. App'x 830, 833 (11th
Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).
The ALJ has done so here and thus properly assigned “little weight” to Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s
Moreover, the ALJ stated that he had “considered opinion evidence in accordance
with the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1527 and 416.927” (R. 26), and his explanation of
“good cause” accounts for four of the §404.1527(c)/§416.927(c) factors. While recognizing
that Dr. Fitz-Gerald had examined Walls and indeed had a treating relationship with him,
see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(2) 416.927(c)(1)-(2), the ALJ also determined that Dr. FitzGerald’s opinion was not supported by “medical signs and laboratory findings” and was not
consistent “with the record as a whole.” See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(3)-(4), 416.927(c)(3)(4). As for degree of “specialization” and “other factors,” id. §§ 404.1527(c)(5)-(6),
416.927(c)(5)-(6), there is no indication that either of these factors was particularly relevant
to consideration of Dr. Fitz-Gerald’s opinion. To the extent Walls is asking the Court to
reweigh those factors, the Court is forbidden from doing so. See Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.
“[r]ecords do show that he has been to a chiropractic clinic and has apparently had
decompression therapy and manipulations.” (R. 480).
Based on these statements, Walls concludes that Dr. Harris was only
provided “chiropractic records” and that he was not provided all “necessary
background information” before rendering his opinion. (Doc. 13 at 4 – 5). Walls
asserts that the medical records allegedly withheld from Dr. Harris – “[t]he MRI
reports, the records from Dr. Boston, and the records from Dr. Givhan” – would
have confirmed “the severity of his lumbar spine.” (Id. at 5). Unfortunately, the
Commissioner’s brief omits discussion of this argument. However, the undersigned
is not convinced that this argument amounts to anything more than Walls’s
disagreement with Dr. Harris’s view of the medical records.6
Noting that Dr. Harris opined that Walls “is capable of light to sedentary
work in the work place” (R. 480), Walls also argues that the ALJ gave no
explanation why he “accepted a light RFC over a sedentary RFC.” (Doc. 13 at 5).
Charitably assuming that Dr. Harris’s opinion was ambiguous, the ALJ reasonably
interpreted it to mean that Walls could perform both light and sedentary work;
This argument is further undermined by the fact that Walls does not support it with
specific citations to portions of the record, instead relying on the general, and
argumentative, assertion that “objective medical evidence” would confirm “the severity of
his lumber spine.” Moreover, Walls only argues that the Commissioner’s alleged failure to
provide Dr. Harris with certain medical records violates a portion of the Social Security
Administration's Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law Manual (“HALLEX”) providing
that the SSA will “give the examiner any necessary background information about the
individual's condition…” HALLEX II-4-1-2, 1996 WL 1586732, at *3. As was recently
discussed in more detail in Quarles v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 15-00572-N, 2016 WL
4250399, at *7 – 8 (S.D. Ala. Aug. 10, 2016), the undersigned has concluded that the
HALLEX is an SSA internal manual that does not carry the authority of law and cannot
provide a basis for error on judicial review under § 405(g).
thus, the ALJ properly assigned Walls a light RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b),
416.967(b) (“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.”).
Moreover, as the
Commissioner points out, at the hearing the ALJ asked the VE a hypothetical
limiting Walls to “at a less full range of sedentary-level work,” with the VE
responding that Walls would still be able to find other jobs. (R. 74 – 75). Thus, any
error by the ALJ in not assigning a sedentary RFC at Step Four appears to be
harmless. See Diorio v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 726, 728 (11th Cir. 1983) (an error is
harmless if it does not affect the ALJ’s ultimate decision).
Accordingly, the Court OVERRULES Walls’s claims of reversible error
regarding Dr. Harris’s opinion.
In Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221 (11th Cir. 1991), [the Eleventh
Circuit] articulated the “pain standard,” which applies when a
disability claimant attempts to establish a disability through his own
testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms. 921 F.2d at 1223. The
pain standard requires
(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2)
objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the
alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the
objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity
that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged
921 F.2d at 1223 (internal citation omitted). If a claimant testifies as to
his subjective complaints of disabling pain and other symptoms … , the
ALJ must clearly “articulate explicit and adequate reasons” for
discrediting the claimant's allegations of completely disabling
symptoms. Foote[ v. Chater], 67 F.3d [1553,] 1561–62[ (11th Cir. 1995)
(per curiam)]. “Although this circuit does not require an explicit
finding as to credibility, ... the implication must be obvious to the
reviewing court.” 67 F.3d at 1562 (quoting Tieniber v. Heckler, 720
F.2d 1251, 1255 (11th Cir. 1983)). The credibility determination does
not need to cite “ ‘particular phrases or formulations’ ” but it cannot
merely be a broad rejection which is “ ‘not enough to enable [the
district court or this Court] to conclude that [the ALJ] considered her
medical condition as a whole.’ ” Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561 (quoting
Jamison v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 585, 588–90 (11th Cir. 1987)).
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210-11 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).
“[C]redibility determinations are the province of the ALJ, Moore v. Barnhart, 405
F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005), and [a court] will not disturb a clearly articulated
credibility finding supported by substantial evidence, Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553,
1562 (11th Cir. 1995).” Mitchell v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 F.3d 780, 782
(11th Cir. 2014).
Along with his discussion of the record medical evidence, the ALJ assessed
Walls’s testimony of pain as follows:
After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the
claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s
statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of
these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this
The claimant submitted a disability application on March 2, 2012 (Exhibit
4E). He alleged that ruptured discs at L5 and S1; nerve damage, with
radiating pain to his feet; alternating bilateral hip pain; lower extremity
numbness and achiness; lower back pain and hypertension limited his
ability to work. Notably, however, the claimant admitted that he
stopped working for reasons other than his medical conditions.
Indeed, he reported that “the company where I was working was
bought out by another company … so they laid me off.” Further,
he indicated that his conditions did not cause him to make
changes in his work activity (Id. at pg. 2) (emphasis added). In a
narrative statement of his application, the claimant clarified that he “hurt
his back in 2008” but continued to work “without a break” until he was
laid off (Id. at pg. 10) (emphasis added).
Although the claimant amended the alleged onset to a later date, his
admissions regarding his ability and determination to continue working
despite his alleged disabling condition vividly demonstrates that his basis
for seeking disability was motivated by his unemployment as opposed to
his medical conditions.
…[T]he claimant appeared and testified at length. He insisted that his
back and leg pain disabled him. He described radiating pain down both
legs and the onset of sharp pain and numbness after walking five to ten
minutes. The claimant testified that he experienced pain daily, which he
opined was caused by tension. He reported that laying on his side and
taking medication alleviated the symptoms, but only because of sleep.
Indeed, he alleged side effects from his medication including drowsiness
and memory lapses, neither of which was ever reported to the prescribing
Further, he testified that he received no relief from
chiropractic treatment or epidural injections and alleged a severe
headache after his last treatment. He alleged sleep disturbance and
limitation in terms of shaving because of the need to stand up. He
described his daily activities as laying down watching television or
Despite these allegations, the claimant admitted that he continued to
drive approximately three times per week. He testified that he could
carry a gallon of milk or a case of soda and could occasionally reach
overhead with both hands. Further, he could walk ten to fifteen minutes,
or long enough to go inside a store. He testified that his last bout of
back problems originated after he was on his knees performing
yard work in a flowerbed for approximately an hour. The claimant
went on to testify that he prepared sandwiches, hand washed dishes
despite having a dishwasher, shopped for groceries monthly, and
attended church weekly – activities that reveal the relative stability of
the claimant’s condition. Further, although the claimant denied
visiting anyone when questioned by the undersigned, he admitted
that he drove to visit his sister upon questioning by his
The undersigned carefully considered the claimant’s testimony along with
the medical, objective and subjective evidence discussed above. To the
extent that his testimony was consistent with that evidence, it is reflected
in the residual functional capacity. Beyond that extent, the claimant’s
testimony simply was not consistent with or supported by the medical or
objective evidence of record.
(R. 26, 28, 30 – 31 (emphasis in original)).7
In the face of this clearly articulated credibility finding, Walls simply claims,
in conclusory fashion, that the ALJ “cherry picked [evidence] from the medical
records to support his position Mr. Walls’ complaints of pain are not credible” and
“ignore[d] all other records in Mr. Walls’ claim providing objective medical evidence
to substantiate his complaints of pain.” (Doc. 13 at 2). Walls’s discussion of these
“other records” (spanning over 100 pages) is minimal, and “contrary to [Walls]’s
contention that the ALJ ignored evidence favorable to [him], ‘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.’ Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1211 (quotation and brackets
The ALJ’s decision in this case was not a broad rejection and [i]s
sufficient to enable … this Court to conclude the ALJ considered [Walls]’s medical
condition as a whole. See id.” Mitchell, 771 F.3d at 782. Walls has failed to make
any argument showing how the ALJ’s “clearly articulated credibility finding” is not
In discrediting Walls’s subjective testimony, the ALJ also noted “that the claimant walked
in and out of the hearing room with no apparent difficulty and sat down and arose
similarly. Further, his gait was unimpaired and he sat throughout the duration of the
hearing with ease.” (R. 31). An ALJ’s use of such observations in making credibility
determinations has long been condemned in this Circuit. See Wilson v. Heckler, 734 F.2d
513, 517-18 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam). However, Walls does not assert error on this
basis; moreover, any such error is harmless at most in this case, as the ALJ articulated
sufficient other reasons for discrediting Walls’s testimony.
supported by at least “substantial evidence,” thus giving this Court no reason to
“disturb” the ALJ’s credibility determination. Id.8
Accordingly, the Court OVERRULES Walls’s claims of reversible error
regarding the pain standard.
Finally, Walls argues that the ALJ failed to indicate whether or how he
considered Mr. Walls’ obesity in evaluating his residual functional capacity” in
accordance with Social Security Ruling (SSR) 02-1p.
[O]besity is not a listed impairment, but the ALJ is required to
consider obesity in the analysis of a claimant's overall medical
condition. See SSR 02–1p. Social Security Regulation 02–1p provides
that obesity shall be considered when determining if (1) a claimant has
a medically determinable impairment, (2) the impairment is severe, (3)
the impairment meets or equals the requirements of a listed
impairment, and (4) the impairment bars claimant “from doing past
relevant work and other work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy.” SSR 02–1p.
Lewis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 487 F. App'x 481, 483 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam)
This case is unlike Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007 (11th Cir. 1987), in which the
Eleventh Circuit found the ALJ erred in disregarding “objective medical evidence show[ing]
several medical impairments that could reasonably be expected to cause to Ms. Hale’s
pain.” 831 F.2d at 1011. Here, the ALJ found that Walls’s “medically determinable
impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms,” but discredited
his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these
symptoms.” (R. 26).
The undersigned also disagrees with Walls’s bald assertion that the ALJ’s decision
“failed to take any of” the factors listed in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), 416.929(c)(3), and
Social Security Ruling 96-7p into “consideration in his decision…” There is no requirement
that an ALJ explicitly list and discuss each of these factors, see Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561
(credibility determination does not need to cite particular phrases or formulations), and the
ALJ’s decision shows he took a number of those factors into consideration.
It is true, as the Commissioner concedes in her brief, that the ALJ did not
specifically discuss obesity at Step Four. However, the ALJ found obesity to be a
“severe” impairment at Step Two but found at Step Three that it did not result in
an impairment or combination of impairments that equaled a listed impairment.
The ALJ then determined at Step Four that Walls had the RFC to perform a
reduced range of light work, and at Step Five he determined that, while Walls could
not perform his past relevant work, there were jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that Walls would be able to perform.
Eleventh Circuit found no error in the ALJ’s consideration of obesity in similar
circumstances. See id.; Solomon v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 532 F. App'x 837, 841
(11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (unpublished) (“Contrary to Solomon’s argument, his
obesity was properly considered in his RFC. To be precise, his obesity was
considered by [medical sources] in their assessments, which the Appeals Council
evaluated, and it was also considered independently by the Appeals Council, which
concluded that his obesity was ‘severe’ but not symptomatic enough to qualify him
for disability.”); Castel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 355 F. App'x 260, 264 (11th Cir. 2009)
(per curiam) (unpublished) (“The record reflects that the ALJ considered Castel's
obesity … The ALJ determined that Castel’s obesity was a severe impairment.
However, the ALJ’s decision reflects that Castel’s obesity was ultimately
determined not to result in any specific functional limitations.”).9
Moreover, in simply arguing that the ALJ failed to show his work under SSR 02-1p, Walls
has failed to offer any argument showing how he was prejudiced by the ALJ’s alleged
failure to follow SSR 02-1p. See Hall v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 116, 119 (5th Cir. Sept. 9,
1981) (Commissioner’s noncompliance with SSR will result in reversal if it is shown
Accordingly, the Court OVERRULES Walls’s claims of reversible error
regarding the ALJ’s consideration of obesity. There being no other claims of error
asserted,10 the Court finds that the Commissioner’s final decision denying Walls
benefits is due to be AFFIRMED.
In accordance with the foregoing analysis, it is ORDERED that the
Commissioner’s April 7, 2015 final decision denying Walls’s applications for a period
of disability, DIB, and SSI is AFFIRMED under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Final judgment shall issue separately in accordance with this Order and
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58.
DONE and ORDERED this the 21st day of September 2016.
/s/ Katherine P. Nelson
KATHERINE P. NELSON
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
prejudice to claimant resulted); Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir.
1981) (en banc) (adopting as binding precedent in the Eleventh Circuit all decisions of the
former Fifth Circuit handed down prior to October 1, 1981).
Generally, claims of error not raised in the district court are deemed waived. Cf. Stewart
v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 115, 115 – 16 (11th Cir. 1994) (“As a general
principle, [the court of appeals] will not address an argument that has not been raised in
the district court … Because Stewart did not present any of his assertions in the district
court, we decline to consider them on appeal.” (applying rule in appeal of judicial review
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3)); Hunter v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 15-11567, 2016
WL 3159217, at *4 (11th Cir. June 7, 2016) (per curiam) (unpublished) (same).
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