Collins v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: 1) Pla Collins' Motion for S/J 10 is DENIED; 2) Dft SSA's Motion for S/J 11 is GRANTED; and 3) Administrative decision will be AFFIRMED by separate jgm entered this date. Signed by Judge Danny C. Reeves on 07/20/2011.(MRS)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
RODNEY D. COLLINS,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 6: 11-0051-DCR
This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed
by Plaintiff Rodney D. Collins and Defendant Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social
Security (“Commissioner”). [Record Nos. 10, 11] Collins argues that the Commissioner
erred in failing to provide a detailed explanation for rejecting his complaints of disabling
pain. Additionally, he contends that the Commissioner erred in substituting his opinion for
that of Collins’ treating physicians. As a result, Collins seeks a remand for an award of
benefits or, alternatively, a remand for a new hearing before a different Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”). However, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ’s decision is supported
by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.
After reviewing the administrative record and the parties’ briefs, the Court will grant
the Commissioner’s motion and deny the relief sought by Collins. The Court concludes that:
(i) the ALJ did not improperly evaluate Collins’ credibility or his claims of disabling pain;
(ii) the ALJ did not improperly substitute his opinion for that of the Collins’ physicians; and
(iii) substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision that Collins is not disabled
under the Social Security Act but is capable of performing work even with the functional
limitations attributed to him by the ALJ.
On July 31, 2007, Collins filed applications for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security
Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. He alleged disability beginning December 15,
2006.1 [Tr., pp. 104-111] These applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration.
Thereafter, a request for hearing before an ALJ was timely filed. Collins, his attorney, and
vocational expert (“VE”) Joyce Forrest, appeared before ALJ Gloria B. York on July 8, 2009,
for a video hearing. [Tr., pp. 18-49] In a hearing decision dated November 2, 2009, ALJ
York found that Collins was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social
Security Act and, therefore, was not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance
benefits. The ALJ further found that Collins was not entitled to SSI because he was not
disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act. [Tr., pp. 9-17]
Collins received disabled child’s SSI benefits from May 1993 through January 2000. He filed
an earlier application for benefits after being advised that his disability would cease. That application
was denied on October 8, 1999. The ALJ assigned to his present administrative case found no reason
to re-open that prior determination. [Tr., p. 9] Therefore, this Court does not have jurisdiction to review
the actions of the Commissioner regarding the earlier claim. Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99, 107-08
(1977); Blancha v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 927 F.2d 228, 231 (6th Cir. 1990).
Collins was twenty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing. He has
a general equivalency diploma (“GED”) and work experience as a data entry operator and
security guard. [Tr., pp. 23-24, 136, 173] Collins alleges that he is disabled due to a variety
of conditions including generalized anxiety disorder, stomach pain, back pain, and a history
of alcohol and drug abuse which is in remission. [Tr., pp. 23-30, 130, 135] After reviewing
the record and the testimony presented during the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded
that Collins suffered from generalized anxiety disorder, but that his other claims impose no
more than a slight or minimal limitation on his ability to perform basic work-related
activities. Thus, he concluded that these other alleged conditions were not severe within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. [Tr., p. 12]
Notwithstanding the impairment relating to anxiety, the ALJ found that Collins
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
for work at all exertional levels, but he has an unaffected ability to understand,
remember, and carry out instructions toward the performance of simple tasks;
has a moderate (occasionally occurring) limitation in the ability to tolerate
stress and pressure; has a slight limitation in the ability to sustain attention and
concentration toward the performance of simple repetitive tasks; and has a
moderate (occasionally occurring) limitation in the ability to respond
appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and work pressures in the work
setting (see Exhibits 5F and 21F).
[Tr., p. 13] As a result of this assessment, Collins was found to be able to perform several
types of work existing in the national and regional economies, including horticultural worker,
farm worker, and janitor/custodian. [Tr., pp. 15-16] The ALJ denied Collins’s request for
a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and SSI. [Tr., p. 17]
Under the Social Security Act, a “disability” is defined as “the inability to engage in
‘substantial gainful activity’ because of a medically determinable physical or mental
impairment of at least one year’s expected duration.” Cruse v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 502
F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant’s Social
Security disability determination is made by an ALJ in accordance with “a five-step
‘sequential evaluation process.’” Combs v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 642 (6th Cir.
2006) (en banc) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If
the claimant satisfies the first four steps of the process, the burden shifts to the Commissioner
with respect to the fifth step. See Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir.
First, the claimant must demonstrate that he is not engaged in substantial gainful
employment at the time of the disability application. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).
Second, the claimant must show that he suffers from a severe impairment or combination of
impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Third, if the claimant is not engaged in
substantial gainful employment and has a severe impairment which is expected to last for at
least twelve months and which meets or equals a listed impairment, he will be considered
disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d),
416.920(d). Fourth, if the Commissioner cannot make a determination of disability based on
medical evaluations and current work activity and the claimant has a severe impairment, the
Commissioner will then review the claimant’s residual functional capacity and relevant past
work to determine whether he can do past work. If he can, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
Under the fifth step of the analysis, if the claimant’s impairment prevents him from
doing past work, the Commissioner will consider his RFC, age, education, and past work
experience to determine whether he can perform other work. If he cannot perform other
work, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g),
416.920(g). The Commissioner has the burden of proof only on “the fifth step, proving that
there is work available in the economy that the claimant can perform.” Howard v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235, 238 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Her v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 203
F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999)).
Judicial review of the denial of a claim for Social Security benefits is limited to
determining whether the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether
the correct legal standards were applied. Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241
(6th Cir. 2007). The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a zone of choice
within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court.
McClanahan v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). Substantial
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support
the conclusion. Lindsley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009);
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th
If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed
even if the Court would decide the case differently and even if the claimant’s position is also
supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir.
2007); Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007); Longworth v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Casey v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs.,
987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993). Thus, the Commissioner’s findings are conclusive if
they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Collins argues that the Commissioner’s final decision regarding the denial of benefits
should be reversed and remanded for further proceedings for two reasons. First, he contends
that the ALJ erred in evaluating his testimony regarding his pain symptoms and limitations
that existed before the onset date of his alleged disability. [Record No. 11, pp. 3-4] Second,
he asserts that the ALJ erred in substituting her opinion for that of the treating physicians of
record. [Record No. 4-5] However, after considering the administrative record and the
ALJ’s rationale for the weight given to these opinions, the Court finds both arguments
The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Claimant’s Credibility and Complaints
Although Collins acknowledges that the ALJ may properly assess allegations of pain
as part of his credibility determination, he contends that the ALJ erred because she failed to
properly explain her reasons for rejecting his testimony. [Record No. 11, pp. 3-4] Citing
Social Security Ruling 96-7p, he argues that, “it is not sufficient for the adjudicator to make
a single, conclusory statement that ‘the individual’s allegations have been considered’ or that
‘the allegations are (or are not) credible.’ It is also not enough for the adjudicator simply to
recite the factors that are described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms.’” Id. Again,
however, the Court finds that the ALJ properly explained the basis for giving little weight
to Collins’ testimony.
As an initial matter, the Court notes that the primary credibility determination in this
action concerns Collins’ claims regarding his mental impairment, as opposed to physically
disabling pain.2 The medical records simply do not support any assertion that he is disabled
as a result of stomach or back pain.3 At pages 7 through 9 of her decision, ALJ York
explains the reasons for giving limited weight to Collins’ testimony concerning his
impairments. After outlining the factors to be considered is assessing pain allegations, the
ALJ reviewed the documentary evidence as well as the testimony provided by Collins during
the administrative hearing. Based on all of this evidence, ALJ York noted that while Collins
does suffer from an anxiety disorder, he appears to exaggerate his symptoms. Further, the
psychologists who evaluated Collins in September 2007 and August 2009 reported only
The Commissioner correctly argues that Collins has not provided any substantive argument
regarding this issue. As a result, he asserts that this argument has been waived. [Record No. 11, p. 5]
While this argument has considerable merit, the Court will proceed to address Collins’ claim.
As the ALJ noted in her opinion, Collins was treated for back pain following a car accident in
September 2004. However, he has not experienced any significant symptoms since then. Further, while
Collins was treated for stomach pain in 2000, it does not appear from the medical records that he has
experienced ongoing difficulty.
moderate limitation. Following her review of these materials, the ALJ accorded great weight
to the psychologists’ reports and conclusions. [Tr., pp. 13-15] More specifically, the ALJ
Although the claimant does have an anxiety disorder, he appeared to
exaggerate his symptoms both in his testimony and when seen by the
consultative psychologist in August 2009. Both the psychologists who
evaluated him in September 2007 and the one who saw him in August 2009
reported only moderate limitation, and the [ALJ] is in agreement. While the
claimant has one exacerbation of symptoms in March 2008, his symptoms
have generally been controlled before and since then. It is notable he was
intoxicated at that time. . . . As for the opinion evidence, the [ALJ] accords
great weight to the reports in Exhibits 5F and 21F with a moderate limitation
in function. None of the treating mental health professionals have noted the
claimant cannot work or has greater limitation.
[Tr., p. 15]
The ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to “great weight and deference”
provided it is “reasonable and supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Jones, 336
F.3d at 476. In light of the objective medical evidence in the record, that standard is more
than met here. As the Sixth Circuit has recognized,
[w]hile it might be ideal for an ALJ to articulate his reasons for crediting or
discrediting each medical opinion, it is well settled that “an ALJ can consider
all the evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece
of evidence submitted by a party. Nor must an ALJ make explicit credibility
findings as to each bit of conflicting testimony, so long as his factual findings
as a whole show that he implicitly resolved such conflicts.”
Kornecky v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 167 F. App’x 496, 507-08 (6th Cir. 2006) (applying
harmless-error standard where “the ALJ merely failed to explain why he favored several
examining physicians’ opinions over another’s”).
The ALJ Did Not Err By Substituting His Opinion For The Opinions of
Physicians Of Record.
Collins also argues that ALJ York improperly substituted her opinion for the contrary
opinions of treating physicians. The Court does not find this argument to be well-taken.
Instead, the Court concludes that the ALJ properly considered all medical evidence relating
to Collins’ claimed impairments.4
Generally, the opinion of a source who has examined the claimant is entitled to greater
weight than the opinion of a non-examining source.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(1),
416.927(d)(1). In deciding how much weight to give an opinion, however, the ALJ must
consider a number of other factors, including how consistent the opinion is with the record
as a whole. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(4), 416.927(d)(4); see also Warner v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 375 F3d. 387, 390-91 (6th Cir. 2004) (weight to be given to physician’s opinion
depends on the extent to which it is supported by the objective medical signs and laboratory
findings and is consistent with the record as a whole). The ALJ must explain the weight he
gives to an opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(f)(2)(ii), 416.927(f)(2)(ii).
In the present case, Collins does not identify which medical opinions were rejected
or given limited weight by the ALJ. Rather, his attorney contends that “the medical evidence
of record clearly indicates that the claimant has and continues to suffer from anxiety. The
claimant has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and was hospitalized in 2008
Again, the Commissioner correctly notes that Collins has failed to properly develop this argument
and has failed to cite any evidence in the record in support. [Record No. 11, p 11]
for suicidal ideation. The claimant has also been hospitalized on multiple occasions for panic
attacks.” [Record No. 10, p. 4]
The ALJ addressed the documentary evidence and acknowledges that the claimant
suffers from generalized anxiety disorder. However, based upon all medical evidence and
testimony submitted for her review, she concluded that the limitations associated with this
disorder impose only a moderate limitation on Collins’ ability to maintain social functioning
and concentration, persistence, and pace and a mild limitation on his ability to maintain the
activities of daily living. Again, this conclusion is consistent with the opinions of the
consulting psychologists who evaluated the claimant. [Tr., p. 13]
Substantial Evidence Supports the Commissioner’s Decision.
During the administrative hearing, ALJ York posed a hypothetical question to the VE
which included the residual functional limitations affecting Collins. [Tr., pp. 43-44] In
response, the VE testified that while the claimant would be unable to perform his past work,
there were jobs that he could perform. Testimony by a VE in response to a hypothetical may
serve as substantial evidence in support of an ALJ’s determination that there is work the
claimant can perform, provided the hypothetical “accurately portrays [the claimant’s]
individual physical and mental impairments.” Howard, 276 F.3d at 238 (internal quotation
omitted). An ALJ must first “evaluat[e] the medical evidence and the claimant’s testimony
to form an ‘assessment of [her] residual functional capacity.’” Webb v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
368 F.3d 629, 633 (6th Cir. 2004) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)) (second alteration
in original). Then, “[t]he vocational expert testifies on the basis of [the] claimant’s ‘residual
functional capacity and . . . age, education, and work experience’” to determine whether the
claimant can do her past relevant work or “‘can make an adjustment to other work.’” Id.
(quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 416.960(b).
Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s findings regarding Collins’ limitations.
Therefore, the VE’s testimony in response to a hypothetical based on the claimant’s RFC is
substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s finding that Collins is not disabled as that term is
defined under the relevant Social Security regulations.
Although Collins suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, he has not established that
his symptoms are severe enough to warrant supplemental security income, a period of
disability, or disability insurance benefits. The ALJ did not give improper weight to the
opinion of any treating physicians or to the opinions of consultative psychologists. Further,
the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert and adopted by the ALJ accurately reflected
Collins’ physical and mental limitations based on the evidence in the record. Viewing the
record as a whole, substantial evidence supports ALJ York’ determination that Collins is not
disabled. Accordingly, it is hereby
ORDERED as follows:
Plaintiff Rodney D. Collins’ Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 10]
Defendant Michael J. Astrue’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 11]
is GRANTED; and
The administrative decision will be AFFIRMED by separate judgment entered
This 20th day of July, 2011.
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