Guidry v. Social Security Administration
ORDER AND REASONS: IT IS ORDERED that the Magistrate Judge's 22 Report is ADOPTED, OVERRULING Plaintiff's 23 objections; IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiff's 19 motion for summary judgment is DENIED, and the Commissioner's 21 cross-motion for summary judgment is GRANTED; and IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiff's petition is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Signed by Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle on 12/4/2017.(jls)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
ORDER AND REASONS
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Victoria Guidry
Commissioner denying her claim for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security
Act. Rec. Doc. 22. Following cross-motions for summary judgment
(Rec. Docs. 19, 21), the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and
Recommendation (“Report”) that Plaintiff’s case be dismissed with
prejudice. Rec. Doc. 22. Plaintiff filed objections to that Report
and Recommendation. Rec. Doc. 23. For the reasons outlined below,
IT IS ORDERED that the Magistrate Judge’s Report is ADOPTED,
OVERRULING Plaintiff’s objections;
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiff’s motion for summary
summary judgment is GRANTED; and
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiff’s petition is DISMISSED
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff Guidry has previous work experience as a shrimp
peeler for a seafood company and as a door greeter at Wal-Mart.
Rec. Doc. 23 at 2. Plaintiff fell from her stool while working at
the seafood factory on June 19, 2012, resulting in pain in her
neck, back, hip, and left upper arm. Id. at 2-3. Plaintiff reported
that this pain prevented her from sitting for long periods at her
job. Rec. Doc. 19-1 at 2. After her attempts to return to work
depression. Rec. Doc. 23 at 3.
performed an orthopedic evaluation of Plaintiff on August 7, 2012.
Rec. Doc. 13-7 at 28. Dr. Kinnard released Plaintiff to return to
findings, specifically minimal degeneration of the cervical spine
and no evidence of disc herniation. Id. Dr. Kinnard further noted
that Plaintiff’s “degree of subjective complaint far outweighs any
tests.” Id. However, upon attempting to return to work, Plaintiff
reported having continued severe pain in her mid-back, left knee,
and left elbow, along with insomnia and depression. Rec. Doc. 23
at 3-4. Plaintiff alleges that this ongoing pain rendered her
unable to work beginning in January 2013. Id. at 4.
Plaintiff filed for Disability Insurance Benefits on March
benefits on August 6, 2013. Id. Plaintiff then sought and received
a hearing before an administrative law judge, which was held on
October 9, 2014. Id. The ALJ affirmed the denial of Plaintiff’s
application. Rec. Doc. 13-2 at 22. The ALJ reached this conclusion
after considering the medical opinions and objective findings of
four doctors, as well as testimony from Plaintiff and vocational
expert Beth Drury. Id. at 30.
The four doctors offered varying opinions about Plaintiff’s
examination of Plaintiff in July 2013. Rec. Doc. 13-7 at 67.
Although Plaintiff displayed some decreased range of motion in her
neck, she had a normal gait and full range of motion elsewhere.
crouching, squatting, and stooping,” and she was able to climb on
and off the examination table with no assistance. Id. Dr. Lefort
reported that Plaintiff would have trouble reaching for objects
for a sustained period of time, which would make her job as a
shrimp peeler “difficult.” Id.
Dr. William Fowler performed a psychological evaluation of
Plaintiff in July 2013, after which he recommended that Plaintiff
be limited to performing simple, repetitive tasks for short periods
of time. Id. at 77. Dr. Fowler noted that Plaintiff’s “pace and
unreliable over extended periods.” Id.
Dr. Charles Lee, a non-treating physician, performed a review
of Plaintiff’s medical records through July of 2013 and determined
that Plaintiff was not disabled. Rec. Doc. 13-3 at 13. Dr. Lee
significantly” limited—as well as physical evaluations, which
lifting, climbing, and crouching. Id. at 8-11.
Finally, Dr. Theryll Johnson, Plaintiff’s treating physician,
composed a single-sentence “To Whom It May Concern” letter on March
18, 2014. It states that Plaintiff is unable to work due to severe
back pain and depression. Rec. Doc. 13-7 at 113.
The ALJ considered the totality of the objective medical
evidence, Plaintiff’s credibility, the conservative nature of
Plaintiff’s treatment, and the record as a whole, before concluding
that Plaintiff was not “a totally disabled individual.” Rec. Doc.
13-2 at 21. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had a residual functioning
capacity (“RFC”) that allowed her to perform simple, routine,
repetitive work with the following limitations: frequently operate
left foot controls; occasionally climb, balance, stoop, crouch,
kneel and crawl; and frequently reach and perform overhead reaching
with the non-dominant left upper extremity. Id. at 16. Accordingly,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could return to her former work
as a door greeter or shrimp peeler or seek other light, unskilled
jobs that exist in Louisiana and the rest of the country. Id. 2122.
On August 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s
request to review the ALJ’s decision, after which Plaintiff filed
the instant action. Rec. Doc. 22 at 2. Plaintiff filed a Motion
for Summary Judgment on April 4, 2017 (Rec. Doc. 19), and Defendant
filed a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment on May 26, 2017 (Rec.
Recommendation affirming the ALJ’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff’s
claims. Rec. Doc. 22. Plaintiff subsequently filed a memorandum
raising objections to the Magistrate Judge’s report. Rec. Doc. 23.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
A. Standard of Review
When a claimant challenges a decision of the Social Security
Administration Commissioner, the district court determines (1)
whether the decision is supported by “substantial evidence”, and
(2) whether the evidence was evaluated using the proper legal
standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496
(5th Cir. 1999). If the Commissioner’s findings are supported by
substantial evidence and conform to the applicable legal standards
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). “Substantial
evidence” exists whenever the Commissioner has “‘such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support
a conclusion.’” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S.
197, 229 (1938)).
In such cases, it is not the Court’s function to “reweigh the
evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute
[its] own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if the
evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner’s] decision.” Id.
Commissioner to decide. See Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592
(5th Cir. 1985).
B. The ALJ properly weighed the medical opinions
Plaintiff’s treating and non-treating physicians
The ALJ evaluated the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating and
disabled. But Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have deferred
to a letter from Dr. Johnson, a treating physician, which states
that Plaintiff cannot work. See Rec. Doc. 23 at 10. The ALJ’s
decision to rely on opinions from non-treating physicians was
proper because Dr. Johnson’s letter asserts a legal conclusion.
On March 18, 2014, Dr. Johnson wrote a letter regarding
Plaintiff’s disability status addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”
Rec. Doc. 13-7 at 113. The letter simply stated that the Plaintiff
“is unable to work because of chronic severe lower back pain and
depression.” Id. This constitutes an expression of a legal opinion
reserved for the Commissioner and therefore is not a medical
Administration regulations state that the Commissioner shall not
“give any special significance to the source” of such conclusory
non-medical opinions. Id. § 404.1527(d)(3). Therefore, the ALJ’s
decision to not adopt the opinion expressed in Dr. Johnson’s letter
comports with administrative regulations.
The ALJ’s actions are also supported by case law. The opinion
of a treating physician typically “should be accorded great weight
in determining disability.” Scott v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 482, 485
responsibility of determining whether a claimant is disabled,
Moore v. Sullivan, 919 F.2d 901, 905 (5th Cir. 1990), and therefore
may give “less weight, little weight, or even no weight” to the
treating physician’s testimony when good cause is shown. Greenspan
v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 237 (5th Cir. 1994). Good cause exists
when a treating physician’s statements “are brief and conclusory,
diagnostic techniques, or otherwise unsupported by the evidence.”
Id. Dr. Johnson’s letter constitutes a conclusory opinion on a
legal issue reserved for the Social Security Commissioner.
Plaintiff also contends that because the ALJ declined to give
controlling weight to her treating physician’s opinion, the ALJ
was required to perform the detailed analysis outlined in Newton
v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448 (5th Cir. 2000). In Newton, the Fifth
Circuit, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527, established a list of factors
that must be considered when the ALJ does not give “controlling
weight” to the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician. Id.
at 455. However, Newton is distinguishable from the instant case
because Newton was “not a case where there is competing first-hand
medical evidence and the ALJ finds as a factual matter that one
doctor’s opinion is more well-founded than another.” Id. at 458.
Rather, Newton involved an ALJ’s rejection of the claimant’s
treating physician in favor of the opinion of a non-specialty
medical expert who had not personally examined the claimant. Id.
The Fifth Circuit later provided further clarity in stating “the
Newton court limited its holding to cases where the ALJ rejects
the sole relevant medical opinion before it.” Qualls v. Astrue,
339 F. Appx. 461, 467 (5th Cir. 2009); see also Cain v. Barnhart,
193 F. Appx. 357, 360 (5th Cir. 2006)(“[T]he ALJ was not required
to go through all six steps in Newton in the face of competing
first-hand medical evidence.”).
The instant case does not involve the rejection of the sole
source of first-hand medical evidence. The Commissioner determined
Plaintiff’s RFC using the results of physical and psychological
Therefore, the ALJ did not err in declining to perform the Newton
analysis and the ALJ’s weighing of evidence was proper.
erroneously relied on Dr. Lee’s opinion” despite the fact that his
opinion was solely based on a review of Plaintiff’s medical records
as of July of 2013 and had less restrictive findings than did
Plaintiff’s treating physicians. Rec. Doc. 23 at 11. But Plaintiff
is incorrect. While the ALJ did give great weight to Dr. Lee’s
opinion, this was not the sole source upon which she based her RFC
determination. Rec. Doc. 13-2 at 20. The ALJ also gave great weight
to Dr. Lefort’s consultative physical examination and partial
weight to Dr. Fowler’s psychological examination. Id. The ALJ then
examinations against Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain to
determine her credibility and assess her disability status. Id.
This assessment also included consideration of the opinion of
vocational expert Beth Drury. Id. at 22. Therefore, Plaintiff’s
objection is without merit.
C. The ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s decision to deny Plaintiff
disability benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. Rec.
Doc. 23 at 15. In order to determine whether a claimant is entitled
to disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff
must prove that she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental
impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has
lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not
less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Social
determine whether the claimant’s impairment meets the requisite
standards. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Fifth Circuit has articulated
“First, the claimant must not be presently working at
any substantial gainful activity. Second, the claimant
must have an impairment or combination of impairments
that are severe. An impairment or combination of
impairments is ‘severe’ if it ‘significantly limits [a
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.’ Third, the claimant's impairment must meet
or equal an impairment listed in the appendix to the
regulations. Fourth, the impairment must prevent the
claimant from returning to his past relevant work.
Fifth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from
doing any relevant work, considering the claimant's
residual functional capacity, age, education, and past
work experience. At steps one through four, the burden
of proof rests upon the claimant to show he is disabled.
If the claimant acquits this responsibility, at step
five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that
there is other gainful employment the claimant is
capable of performing in spite of his existing
impairments. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the
claimant must then prove he in fact cannot perform the
Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197-98 (5th Cir. 1999). Here, at
the first step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activities since the alleged disability onset
date of August 1, 2013. Rec. Doc. 13-2 at 14. The ALJ further
found, at the second step, that Plaintiff had the following
impairments that would be considered “severe”: degenerative disc
disease of the spine; osteoarthritis of the left elbow, hip, and
knee; and depression. Id.
However, the ALJ stated, at the third step, that the evidence
failed to establish an impairment or combination of impairments,
either mental or physical, which rose to the level of severity
necessary for a finding of disability. Id. at 16. Accordingly, at
the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual
§ 404.1567(b) with certain mental and physical limitations. Id. at
20. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is capable of performing her
past work as a shrimp peeler and door greeter, as well as other
jobs existing in the national economy that can be performed with
these limitations. Id. at 21.
When examining whether an ALJ based her RFC determination on
substantial evidence, a court examines four factors: (1) objective
medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining
physicians; (3) the claimant’s subjective evidence of pain and
history. Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995). The
ALJ reasoned that Plaintiff could return to work with physical and
mental limitations, each will be addressed in turn.
The ALJ limited the work in which Plaintiff could engage to
“light” work with the following specific limitations: frequently
operate left foot controls; occasionally climb, stoop, crouch,
kneel, and crawl; and frequently reach and perform overhead reach
with the left upper arm. Rec. Doc. 13-2 at 16. Plaintiff contends
that the ALJ erred by not including a limitation on sustained
reaching, which would be more consistent with the entirety of Dr.
Lefort’s findings. Rec. Doc. 23 at 12-13. Plaintiff claims that
the ALJ “cannot ‘pick and choose’ only the evidence that supports
[her] position.” Id. (citing Loza v. Apfel, 219 F.3d 378, 394 (5th
Cir. 2000)). However, an ALJ is not required to adopt each treating
physician’s opinion wholesale. Cf. Loza, 219 F.3d at 393 (remanding
because the ALJ failed to examine the medical evidence on record
as a whole). Rather, an ALJ must examine the combined effect of a
claimant’s impairments to make a disability determination based on
the record as a whole. See id.
limitation in favor of a frequent reaching limitation, the ALJ
looked to the record as a whole and the objective medical findings
of Dr. Lefort and others. The ALJ, in formulating the specific
physical limitations for Plaintiff’s RFC, found that the mostly
mild objective findings of the various physical examinations and
the conservative treatment by Plaintiff’s physicians warranted a
limitation of only frequent reaching with Plaintiff’s upper left
arm. See Rec. Doc. 13-2.
“concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects” of
objective medical examinations showing mild to moderate results.
Id. at 17. While the Social Security Act has considered pain alone
to be sufficient to constitute disability in certain cases, the
pain must be “constant, unremitting, and wholly unresponsive to
therapeutic treatment.” Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 166 (5th
Cir. 1983). The evidence as a whole does not support a finding
that Plaintiff’s pain rises to this level. Plaintiff underwent xrays of her pelvis and spine, which revealed mostly normal results.
Rec. Doc. 13-2 at 18. Treatment for Plaintiff’s pain was limited
to injections and medications rather than surgery. Id. at 18. The
ALJ correctly concluded that this objective medical evidence did
not support Plaintiff’s claims of debilitating pain. Id. at 17.
Therefore, the ALJ’s determination is not the result of the
“picking and choosing” of portions of medical opinions, but rather
it is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.
The ALJ also imposed psychological limitations on the work
that Plaintiff could do, specifically that Plaintiff could perform
simple, routine tasks for short periods. Id. at 16. Plaintiff
alleges that the ALJ erred by incorporating part of Dr. Fowler’s
mental status assessment, but omitting the portion of the opinion
stating that she could not do this for sustained periods. Rec.
Doc. 23 at 14. Dr. Fowler’s examination in July 2013 revealed selfreported depression, confusion, and diminished interest in social
activities. Rec. Doc. 13-7 at 75-76. The results of the examination
led Dr. Fowler to recommend that Plaintiff be limited to carrying
out simple, repetitive work for short periods, “but that pace and
unreliable over extended periods.” Id. at 77.
But there was additional psychological evidence in the record
that showed Plaintiff’s psychological condition was improving. In
addition to Dr. Fowler’s opinion, the ALJ also considered the
results of a psychiatric system evaluation performed on November
13, 2013, as well as evaluations by the Leonard Chabert Medical
Louisiana Human Services. Rec. Doc. 13-2 at 19. The November 2013
evaluation revealed that Plaintiff suffered from irritable and
compulsions, and impaired judgment and impulse control. Id. She
was also diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Id. However,
Plaintiff displayed normal speech, cooperative attitude, logical
thought processes, full orientation, normal remote and recent
memory, and normal intellectual functioning.
expressed plans to do so in the future. Id. Her highest global
assessment functioning score was 62, which indicates only moderate
functional limitation. Id. In August 2014, at a session that
revealed normal psychiatric results, Plaintiff self-reported that
her depression was well controlled by medication. Id.
determined that these mild to moderate findings along with the
disability. Id. at 21. The ALJ’s adoption of a portion of Dr.
Fowler’s recommendations and the omission of other portions was a
decision based upon the entirety of the record, which indicated
that the Plaintiff’s mental health had shown improvement by August
2014 through treatment and the effective use of medication. Id. at
19. Therefore, the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff can perform
light work with some limitations was based on substantial evidence
in the record, and Plaintiff’s objection is without merit.
Given that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence, Plaintiff’s final objection is moot. Plaintiff argues
that the ALJ should have applied Medical-Vocational guideline
201.09.1 But the ALJ properly declined to apply that guideline
because it is only applicable when the ALJ has reached step 5 of
This Grid Rule instructs an ALJ to find that a claimant is disabled if she is
limited to sedentary work, is closely approaching an advanced age, has at most
a limited education level, and has previous experience as an unskilled worker
(if any). 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, App. 2 § 201.09.
the analysis and the claimant is restricted to sedentary work.
Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 129 (5th Cir. 1991); 20 C.F.R. Pt.
404, App. 2 § 201.09. Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could so
Accordingly, judgment in Defendant Secretary's favor will
New Orleans, Louisiana this 4th day of December 2017.
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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