Coffey v. SSA
OPINION AND ORDER 1. Plaintiff's motion for s/j 9 is DENIED; 2. The Commissioner's motion for s/j 10 is GRANTED; 3. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. 4. A judgment will be entered contemporaneously. Signed by Judge Karen K. Caldwell on 09/09/2016.(LC)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
CLIFFORD RAY COFFEY,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 5:15-cv-00160-KKC
OPINION AND ORDER
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
*** *** ***
This matter is before the Court for consideration of cross-motions for summary
judgment. [DE 9; 10.] The Plaintiff, Clifford Ray Coffey, brought this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial relief from an administrative decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security denying his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The Court, having reviewed the record,
will affirm the Commissioner’s decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence and was
decided by the proper legal standards.
I. OVERVIEW OF THE PROCESS
In determining whether a claimant has a compensable disability under the Social
Security Act, the regulations provide a five-step sequential process which the
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) must follow. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Rabbers
v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009) (describing the
administrative process). The five steps, in summary, are as follows:
1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or
mental impairment—i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities—the claimant is not
3) If the claimant has a severe impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the
listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration
requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant’s impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or
her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not
disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the
claimant is disabled.
Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 652 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)–(v), 404.1520(b)–(g)).
The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four steps of the analysis; but if
the ALJ reaches the fifth step without finding the claimant disabled, then the burden shifts
to the Commissioner. Longworth v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir.
2005). The Commissioner satisfies the burden of proof at the fifth step by finding that the
claimant is qualified for—and capable of performing—jobs that are available in the national
economy and may rely upon the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) regarding the range
of potential jobs. Jordan v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 423, 425 (6th Cir. 2008).
II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND AND THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
Clifford Ray Coffey (“Claimant”) filed his claim for DIB and SSI on August 27, 2012,
alleging an onset date of August 24, 2012. [TR 24.] The agency denied his application
initially and upon reconsideration. [TR 61-62; 83-84.] Claimant requested review by an
ALJ, and a hearing was held on October 18, 2013. [TR 40-60.] The ALJ subsequently issued
an unfavorable decision on December 3, 2013. [TR 21-39.]
At the time the ALJ’s decision was rendered, Claimant was 48 years old. See [TR 63.]
Claimant obtained a GED and has past relevant work as a concrete carpenter. [TR 45; 562
57.] He alleges disability due to spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis. [TR 47-49.] Claimant’s
insured status expires on December 31, 2016. [TR 26.]
First, the ALJ determined that Claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since his alleged onset date of August 24, 2012. [TR 26.] Second, the ALJ found that
Claimant suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with
spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis. [TR 26.] Third, the ALJ determined that Claimant does
not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of one of the listed impairments. [TR 27.]
Next, the ALJ reviewed the record to determine Claimant’s residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). RFC assesses a claimant’s maximum remaining capacity to perform work-related
activities despite the physical and mental limitations caused by the claimant’s disability. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1); 416.945(a)(1). In finding Claimant’s RFC, the ALJ considered all
symptoms in light of the objective medical evidence and other relevant evidence, including
the following: (i) daily activities; (ii) location, duration, frequency, and intensity of
symptoms; (iii) precipitating and aggravating factors; (iv) type, dosage, effectiveness, and
side effects of any medication; (v) additional treatment; (vi) additional measures used to
relieve symptoms; and (vii) other factors concerning functional limitations and restrictions
due to symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. After reviewing all of the evidence, the ALJ
determined that Claimant has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that the claimant is able to frequently balance and can
occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but is unable to climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [TR 28.] The ALJ further found that Claimant is limited to
occasional reaching overhead, but has no reaching limitations in other directions. [TR 28.]
After establishing Claimant’s RFC, the ALJ continued to the fourth step. The ALJ
asked the VE whether a hypothetical individual with Claimant’s vocational factors and
RFC could work as a roof carpenter or construction carpenter. [TR 57.] The VE testified
that this hypothetical individual could not perform any past relevant work. [TR 57.] Thus,
the ALJ moved to the fifth step. The ALJ asked if this hypothetical individual could make
an adjustment to other work and the VE noted that this hypothetical individual could
perform a number of unskilled and sedentary jobs, including inspector, machine operator,
and assembly jobs. [TR 34; 57-58.] Therefore, the ALJ found Claimant not disabled. [TR
The ALJ’s decision that Claimant is not disabled became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council subsequently denied Claimant’s request for
review on March 30, 2015. [TR 1-6.] Claimant has exhausted his administrative remedies
and filed a timely action in this Court. This case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §
III. GENERAL STANDARD OF REVIEW
The decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed unless the ALJ applied the incorrect
legal standards or the ALJ’s findings are not supported by substantial evidence. Lindsley v.
Comm. of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence is ‘such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’”
Id. (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In reviewing the decision of
the Commissioner, courts should not conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the
evidence, or make credibility determinations. See Lindsley, 560 F.3d at 604–05. Courts
must look at the record as a whole, and “[t]he court ‘may not focus and base [its] decision
entirely on a single piece of evidence, and disregard other pertinent evidence.’” Sias v. Sec.
of H.H.S., 861 F.2d 475, 479 n.1 (6th Cir. 1988) (alteration in original) (quoting Hephner v.
Mathews, 574 F.2d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 1978)). Rather, courts must affirm the
Commissioner’s decision so long as it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the court
may have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389–90
(6th Cir. 1999).
On appeal, Claimant presents three issues for review. First, he argues that the ALJ
failed to give sufficient weight to his treating physicians’ opinions. Second, he asserts that
the ALJ erred by discounting the credibility of his own statements about the severity of his
conditions and symptoms. Third, Claimant argues that the ALJ erred in determining his
RFC by omitting sitting and standing limitations. The Court will affirm the ALJ’s
determinations on each of these points because each finding was supported by substantial
evidence and made under the proper standards.
1. The ALJ did not err in discounting the opinions of Claimant’s treating physicians.
First, Claimant argues that the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinions of his treating
physicians, Dr. Hays and Dr. Secor. [DE 9 at 3.] Because the ALJ found that the opinions of
Dr. Hays and Dr. Secor were not consistent with Claimant’s treatment history, the ALJ did
not err in discounting their opinions.
The ALJ is required to “evaluate every medical opinion” in the record. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(d). Not all medical opinions, however, are treated equally. The opinions of
treating physicians, “medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal
picture,” are generally afforded the greatest deference. Blakley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 581
F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). But “[i]t is an error to
give an opinion controlling weight simply because it is the opinion of a treating source if it
is not well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques
or if it is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” Blakley, 581
F.3d at 406 (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (July 2, 1996)). The ALJ can reject the
opinion of the treating physician “if good reasons are identified for not accepting it.” Bogle
v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 348 (6th Cir. 1993); see also Combs v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 459
F.3d 640, 652 (6th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (holding that an ALJ may reject the opinion of a
treating physician if the treating physician’s opinion is divorced from supporting objective
In this case, the ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions of Dr. Hays and Dr. Secor for
three reasons. [TR 31.] First, the ALJ stated that these opinions were inconsistent with
Claimant’s treatment records. [TR 31.] Dr. Hays’ report opines that Claimant can never
climb, balance, or crawl, can sit for less than six hours in a workday, can stand for less than
two hours in a workday, and can have only limited exposure to dust, fumes, odors,
chemicals, and gases. [TR 436-440.] As to Dr. Hays, the ALJ found that “the medical
evidence does not support these limitations because there is no reference to the claimant
having a breathing disorder,” which discredits the limitations involving lung irritants that
Dr. Hays assigned, “and . . . the claimant retained at least 4/5 strength in his extremities
and normal station,” which undermines the other limitations stated by Dr. Hays. [TR 31.]
Similarly, the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Secor’s opinion that Claimant could only lift
20 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently, could stand and walk for less
than two hours, and could sit for less than six hours. [TR 494-497.] Dr. Secor also opined
that Claimant was limited in pushing and pulling and had a limited ability to reach in all
directions.” [TR 31.] Again, the ALJ found that Claimant’s “treatment history, which lacked
neck or back surgery, and the treating notes indicating that the claimant retained at least
4/5 strength and the ability to ambulate with only trace antalgic gait did not support this
level of limitation.” [TR 31.] The ALJ also observed that Dr. Secor’s “notes show that the
claimant had only slightly diminished strength, and,” despite seeing Claimant on a roughly
monthly basis, “they did not evidence significant worsening in the claimant’s condition.”
[TR 31.] Furthermore, in contrast to Dr. Hays’ and Dr. Secor’s opinions, the ALJ cited other
medical evidence in the record, such as Dr. Malik’s indication that Claimant stood normally
and had only slightly diminished strength. [TR 452; 455.] Thus, the ALJ properly supported
his conclusion that Dr. Hays’ and Dr. Secor’s opinions were contradicted by other medical
evidence in the record. See Combs, 459 F.3d at 652; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3)-(4) (physician
statements that are supported by objective medical evidence and consistent with the record
as a whole merit more weight).
Second, the ALJ found that the treating physician’s opinions “did not adequately
account for the claimant’s repeated overstatement of symptoms evidenced by a positive
Waddell’s sign.” [TR 31.] Dr. Malik found that Claimant had a positive Waddell’s sign. [TR
30; 409.] As the ALJ explained, a positive Waddell’s sign “demonstrate[s] an overreaction
and disproportionate verbalization and facial expression to pain” and “suggests that the
claimant overstated his limitations.” [TR 30.] The ALJ properly took into account Dr.
Malik’s impression that Claimant was exaggerating his pain when weighing Dr. Hays’ and
Dr. Secor’s opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(6) (ALJ may consider other factors that
tend to contradict an opinion.).
Third, the ALJ also took into account Claimant’s own statements about his daily
activities, including cooking hamburgers and spaghetti, doing some laundry, taking out the
trash, and driving a car. [TR 31.] The ALJ found that “claimant’s testimony regarding his
ability to perform activities suggested a higher level of functioning” than that recommended
by Dr. Hays or Dr. Secor. [TR 31.] This was also a valid consideration tending to undermine
the treating physicians’ opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(6); Sizemore v. Sec’y of Health
& Human Servs., 865 F.2d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 1988) (claimant’s activities, including
childcare, caring for pets, driving, and doing housework, supported ALJ’s determination).
In sum, the ALJ provided a valid rationale for discounting the highly limiting opinions of
Claimant’s treating physicians. See Norris, 461 Fed. App’x at 440 (determining that the
ALJ must provide his reasons for crediting and discrediting certain medical opinions but
that the ALJ need not provide a verbose rationale).
2. The ALJ’s credibility determination was supported by substantial evidence.
Next, Claimant asserts that the ALJ failed to adequately assess his credibility. [DE 9 at
11.] “An ALJ considers numerous factors in constructing a claimant's RFC, including the
medical evidence, non-medical evidence, and the claimant's credibility.” Coldiron v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., 391 F. App'x 435, 443 (6th Cir. 2010). When making this determination, an
ALJ is required to resolve evidentiary conflicts and incorporate only those limitations that
she finds credible into the RFC assessment. See Casey v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs.,
987 F.2d 1230, 1234-35 (6th Cir. 1993). “Since the ALJ has the opportunity to observe the
demeanor of a witness, his conclusions with respect to credibility should not be discarded
lightly and should be accorded deference.” Hardaway v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
823 F.2d 922, 928 (6th Cir. 1987)
Here, the ALJ provided several valid reasons for finding that Claimant’s statements
regarding the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely
credible. [TR 28.] First, the ALJ engaged in a lengthy discussion of the Claimant’s pertinent
medical records, see [TR 28-32], and found that those records did not support the Claimant’s
allegations of total disability. [TR 31.]
Again, the ALJ found that Claimant’s own testimony about his daily activities, such as
his statements that he is the primary caretaker of his daughter, undermined his credibility.
[TR 32.]; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)(i); Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 536 (6th
Cir. 2001) (an ALJ can “properly determine that [a claimant’s] subjective complaints [are]
not credible in light of her ability to perform other tasks.”). The ALJ concluded that
Claimant’s daily activities show that he “retains the ability to perform some tasks that
could be useful for performing work activity.” [TR 32.]
The ALJ further found that “the claimant’s treatment history also undermines the
claimant’s credibility.” [TR 32.] Specifically, the ALJ noted that “claimant has been able to
alleviate much of his pain through the use of chiropractic treatment, massage therapy, and
pain medications,” but that “claimant has not been completely compliant with treatment,”
pointing to the fact that Claimant continues to smoke and abused medication on at least
one occasion. [TR 32.] For instance, the ALJ found that “Dr. Malik’s treatment notes
suggest that the claimant’s condition is adequately controlled with pain medication . . . .”
[TR 31.] Finally, the ALJ again considered the positive Waddell’s signs noted by Dr. Malik,
which likewise undermined the credibility of claimant’s allegations. [TR 32.] Thus, the
ALJ’s credibility finding was supported by substantial evidence.
Claimant argues that the ALJ’s credibility determination was flawed because it failed to
consider that Claimant continued to work in construction despite doctors’ suggestions that
he stop working. [TR 13.] Claimant argues that this indicates that he is not malingering or
magnifying his symptoms. [TR 13.] However, the Commissioner responds that this fact
“undercuts Plaintiff’s claim, as working despite a longstanding impairments helps to show
that he is not disabled.” Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 548 (6th Cir. 1986) (“the condition
was one with which he had been afflicted for many years and which he had in the past
managed to tolerate notwithstanding his work.”). Even if the Court considered Claimant’s
continued employment in the light most favorable to the Claimant, it would be insufficient
on its own to invalidate the ALJ’s well-supported credibility determination.
3. The ALJ did not err by excluding limitations stated by Claimant’s treating physicians and
Claimant himself from the RFC.
Finally, Claimant argues that the RFC assigned by the ALJ is flawed because it “does
not take into account his need to alternate sitting and standing as opined by his treating
doctors and by [Claimant’s] own testimony.” [DE 9 at 14.] As previously explained, the
Court finds that the ALJ’s decision to discount the treating physician’s opinions and
Claimant’s own credibility was valid. Therefore, the ALJ was not required to incorporate
limitations from those parties into Claimant’s RFC.
Lastly, the Court notes that Claimant cites medical evidence suggesting that his
conditions are severe. See, e.g., [DE 9 at 10.] However, where the Commissioner’s decision is
supported by substantial evidence, the Court must affirm that decision even if there is
substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.
Longworth v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005). Indeed, even if
the Court would have decided the matter differently than the ALJ, the ALJ’s decision must
be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 781-82
(6th Cir. 1996). Here, substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s determinations that led to
an ultimate finding that Claimant is not disabled, so that finding must be affirmed.
For the reasons set forth above, the Court hereby ORDERS as follows:
1. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment [DE 9] is DENIED;
2. The Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment [DE 10] is GRANTED;
3. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) as it was supported by substantial evidence and was decided by proper legal
4. A judgment consistent with this Opinion & Order will be entered contemporaneously.
Dated September 9, 2016.
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