COCHRAN v. COLVIN
ORDER affirming the determination of the Social Security Commissioner. Ordered by US MAGISTRATE JUDGE STEPHEN HYLES on 8/15/2017. (efw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
NANCY A BERRYHILL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO. 3:16-CV-115-MSH
Social Security Appeal
The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law
Judge’s (ALJ’s) determination, denied Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance
benefits, finding that he is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and
Regulations. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner’s decision was in error and seeks
review under the relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). All
administrative remedies have been exhausted. Both parties filed their written consents
for all proceedings to be conducted by the United States Magistrate Judge, including the
entry of a final judgment directly appealable to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination of
whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards
were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam).
“Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a
preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this
court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court’s role in
reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may
neither decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner.1 Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must,
however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision.
Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam). The court must
scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s
Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).
However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it
must be affirmed if substantial evidence supports it. Id.
The Plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that she is unable to perform her
previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001 (11th Cir. 1986). The Plaintiff’s burden
is a heavy one and is so stringent that it has been described as bordering on the
unrealistic. Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1083 (5th Cir. 1981).2 A Plaintiff
seeking Social Security disability benefits must demonstrate that she suffers from an
Credibility determinations are left to the Commissioner and not to the courts. Carnes v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). It is also up to the Commissioner and not to the
courts to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir.
1986) (per curiam); see also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986).
In Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc), the
Eleventh Circuit adopted as binding precedent all decision of the former Fifth Circuit rendered
prior to October 1, 1981.
impairment that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a
twelve-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In addition to meeting the requirements of
these statutes, in order to be eligible for disability payments, a Plaintiff must meet the
requirements of the Commissioner’s regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority
given in the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 et seq.
Under the Regulations, the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure to determine
if a Plaintiff is disabled. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff is
If not, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff has an
impairment which prevents the performance of basic work activities. Id. Second, the
Commissioner determines the severity of the Plaintiff’s impairment or combination of
impairments. Id. Third, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff’s severe
impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the
Regulations (the “Listing”).
Id. Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the
Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity can meet the physical and mental demands of past
work. Id. Fifth and finally, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff’s residual
functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience prevent the performance of
any other work. In arriving at a decision, the Commissioner must consider the combined
effects of all of the alleged impairments, without regard to whether each, if considered
separately, would be disabling. Id. The Commissioner’s failure to apply correct legal
standards to the evidence is grounds for reversal. Id.
Whether the ALJ assigned appropriate weight to the treating physician’s
Whether a new psychological exam required remand.
Whether the ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff’s credibility.
Plaintiff Joanna Cochran filed an application for disability insurance benefits on
April 23, 2013 alleging that she has been disabled to work since January 1, 2011. Her
application was denied initially on November 1, 2013 and on reconsideration on March
27, 2014. She filed a written request for an evidentiary hearing before an administrative
law judge (ALJ) on May 20, 2014, and the hearing was conducted on December 11,
2015. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with her attorney and gave testimony, as did an
impartial vocational expert (VE). Tr. 19. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on
January 19, 2016 denying her claim. Tr. 16-31. She sought review by the Appeals
Council on January 26, 2016, but was denied on June 27, 2016. Tr. 7-13, 1-6. Having
exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under the Social Security Act,
Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner to deny her
application for disability benefits.
Statement of Facts and Evidence
On the date the ALJ issued his written decision, Plaintiff was fifty-nine years old.
Tr. 27. In her application for a period of disability and disability benefits she claimed
that she is unable to work due to fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, attention deficit
disorder (ADD), and a left shoulder injury. Tr. 211. She is a high school graduate and
has previously worked as a cashier, medical office clerk and secretary, and bookkeeper.
Tr. 54-58, 201, 212, 228.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s application using the five-step sequential analysis
mandated by the Commissioner’s regulations. At step one, he determined that she has
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 19, 2013, her amended onset date,
and at step two found her to have severe impairments of history of fibromyalgia, history
of left shoulder dislocation, and obesity.
He also found non-severe medically
determinable impairments of anxiety, depression, ADD, and migraine headaches.
Finding Nos. 2 and 3, Tr. 21.
The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff’s severe
impairments, considered both alone and in combination with one another, neither meet
nor medically equal a listed impairment set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. Finding No. 4, Tr. 22. Between steps three and four, he formulated a
residual functional capacity assessment (RFC) which permits Plaintiff to engage in a full
range of sedentary work. Finding No. 5, Tr. 22-26. At step four, the ALJ established that
Plaintiff’s RFC allows her to resume her past relevant work as an office worker,
bookkeeper, and medical office clerk. Finding No. 6, Tr. 26. Therefore, the ALJ found
Plaintiff not disabled to work. Tr. 26-27.
Plaintiff contends that three errors were committed in the consideration of her
She argues first that the ALJ gave only little weight to her treating
physician’s opinion without good cause. Next, she asserts that the Appeals Council
should have found that a new psychological evaluation required remand. Finally, she
claims that the ALJ discounted her credibility without providing adequate reasons. Pl.’s
Br. 1-2, ECF No. 13. The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the
findings made by the ALJ in assessing the opinion of the treating physician and in his
decision to discount Plaintiff’s statements about her symptoms and their effect on her
ability to work. Further, the Commissioner responds that the psychological report at
issue does not undermine the substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s findings and the
Appeals Council was correct in denying review. Comm’r’s Br. 4, 11, 13, ECF No. 14.
Did the ALJ assign appropriate weight to the treating physician’s opinion?
In her first assertion of error Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly gave only little
weight to two specific opinions by her treating physician, Charles Braucher, M.D. On
June 12, 2015, Dr. Braucher completed a Fibromyalgia RFC Questionnaire and reported
that Plaintiff has pain and other symptoms which “constantly” interfere with her ability to
perform simple work tasks. Ex. 13F, Tr. 571. He further said that she would need three
to five unscheduled breaks daily and would miss four days of work a month due to her
symptoms. Ex. 13F, Tr. 572-73. He also completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire
in June 2013 and rated her ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions as “abnormal.” Ex. 2F, Tr. 342.
The ALJ described the doctor’s fibromyalgia questionnaire as one which
“essentially limits (Plaintiff) to less than sedentary work.” Tr. 23. He discounted the
findings set forth in the questionnaire for three reasons.
First, the ALJ found the
conclusions to be inconsistent with other medical evidence of record. Second, he found
them to be inconsistent with the doctor’s own clinical treatment notes. Finally, and
according to the ALJ’s written decision “more importantly,” he found them to be
contradicted by physical examination findings that were negative for symptoms which
would support the extreme limitations set out in the physician’s responses. Tr. 23-24.
The opinion of a treating physician must be given substantial weight unless the
ALJ has good cause for doing otherwise. Good cause exists if the physician’s opinions
are not bolstered by the medical evidence in the record, or if the opinions are inconsistent
with or contradicted by the doctor’s own records of care. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2003). The ALJ noted that Dr. Braucher prescribed exercise for
improving the fibromyalgia symptoms and that a January 14, 2014 physical examination
by a neurologist was within normal limits and showed “full strength in all planes.” Tr.
24. The ALJ explained his reasons for discounting Dr. Braucher’s findings and identified
the evidence in the record on which he based his decision. Because the ALJ’s factual
findings are supported by substantial evidence they are conclusive and the Court may not
substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936
F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991); Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991).
Likewise, the ALJ explained why he also discounted Dr. Braucher’s Mental
Impairment Questionnaire responses, stating that the responses were inconsistent with the
preponderance of other evidence and based on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and not
actual clinical findings.
He noted that although she claimed inability to
concentrate and complete tasks, she left her last employment to open a successful
restaurant that she later sold.
Having set forth good cause supported by
substantial evidence for his determination that these two opinions of Dr. Braucher merit
less than substantial or controlling weight, the ALJ did not err.
Did a new psychological exam require remand?
Plaintiff submitted a psychological evaluation to the Appeals Council and
contends in her second argument that the Appeals Council should have remanded her
claim to the ALJ in light of the new evidence. The Appeals Council stated that the new
report was considered but did not provide a basis for remand. The new evidence is an
evaluation by Matt Butryn, Ph.D. dated April 20, 2016.
The Court has reviewed Dr. Butryn’s report which says that Plaintiff left her most
recent relevant work as a medical receptionist because of what she viewed as a conflict of
interest involving one of the doctors in the practice. Tr. 576. She told Dr. Butryn that she
stays active engaging in grocery shopping, cooking, and doing laundry although she tires
easily. Dr. Butryn described her as "bright" and noted a perfect 30/30 score on one of the
tests he administered. Tr. 577. He diagnosed her with moderate depression and mild
While Dr. Butryn includes observations about
Plaintiff’s ability to concentrate and complete tasks that are extreme, they are based on a
single clinical presentation almost two years after June 30, 2014, the last relevant date in
her claim. On its face, it is therefore both irrelevant and immaterial. Carroll v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 2011 WL 6152279 (11th Cir. Dec. 12, 2011). Dr. Butryn does reference
notes made and conclusions reached within the relevant period by Dr. Braucher, but the
ALJ properly discounted those notes and conclusions. The Court cannot say that the
Commissioner’s decision in Plaintiff’s case is not well-supported by substantial evidence
or that the report by Dr. Butryn would render her decision to deny Plaintiff benefits is
erroneous. Mitchell v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780 (11th Cir. 2014). Plaintiff’s
second contention has no merit.
Did the ALJ properly discount Plaintiff’s credibility?
In her third and final assertion, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discounted
her credibility regarding the symptoms caused by her impairments. Pl.’s Br. 2, 19. The
ALJ stated in his decision that he considered all of her symptoms and the extent to which
they could be reasonably accepted as consistent with the evidence of record, citing to the
regulatory requirements in doing so. He properly set forth the process followed in the
evaluation of subjective complaints. Tr. 22-23. He made a specific finding that the
preponderance of evidence did not support her allegations and hearing testimony
concerning the functional limitations caused by her symptoms and gave a series of
reasons for his conclusions with citations to the record. The Court has reviewed the
reasons and reviewed the entire record as well. The ALJ properly applied the pain
standard, determined that her complaints were not supported by the medical evidence and
were inconsistent with the record evidence including her daily activities and work
history. He articulated the basis for his conclusions and made adequate and explicit
findings. Preston v. Barnhart, 187 F. App’x 940, 941 (11th Cir. 2006); Hennes v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 130 F. App’x 343, 347-49 (11th Cir. 2005). The court finds no
error and Plaintiff’s third argument lacks merit.
For the reasons stated above, the determination of the Social Security
Commissioner is affirmed.
SO ORDERED, this 15th day of August, 2017.
/s/ Stephen Hyles
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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