Taylor v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders on 10/3/17. (def)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
DORIS M. TAYLOR
CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:16CV211
COMMISSIONER OF THE
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINSTRATION
This matter is before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security denying the application of Doris M. Taylor for Disability
Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. The parties in this case have consented to
entry of final judgment by the United States Magistrate Judge under the provisions of 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c), with any appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. After considering the
issues raised, the court finds as follows:
In this case the plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in giving greater weight to the opinion
of a non-examining physician over the opinion of a consultative examiner and that the ALJ did
not fully and fairly evaluate all of the evidence in the record, but rather cherry-picked the
evidence to justify denying benefits.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to an inquiry into whether
there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42
U.S.C. ' 405 (g.); Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d
1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla.
It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229
(1938)). The Fifth Circuit has further held that substantial evidence “must do more than create a
suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but ‘no substantial evidence’ will be
found only where there is a ‘conspicuous absence of credible choices’ or ‘no contrary medical
evidence.’” Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988) (quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707
F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide, and
if substantial evidence is found to support the decision, the decision must be affirmed even if
there is evidence on the other side. Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990). The
court may not reweigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that
of the Commissioner, Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988), even if it finds that
the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d
431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994); Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475. The court must however, in spite of its
limited role, scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision ...
and whether substantial evidence exists to support it.” Randall v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 105, 109
(5th Cir. 1992). If the Commissioner’s decision is supported by the evidence, then it is a
conclusive and must be upheld. Perales, 402 U.S. at 390.
Doris Taylor was fifty-one years old as of the date of her alleged onset of disability on
March 12, 2013. She worked for many years as a paramedic which is skilled work performed at
the very heavy exertional level. She also worked as a pharmacy assistant, skilled work
performed at a light level of exertion. At the hearing, the plaintiff requested consideration of the
favorable determination. On July 12, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. He found
that Taylor had severe impairments of a spine disorder, spondylosis at C5-6 and 6-7 with nerve
root compression, cervical radiculopathy, osteoarthritis, headaches, depression, dysthymic
disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and personality disorder. He did not mention either the
favorable disability determination of the Mississippi’s public employees’ system, nor the
physician’s statements that had been submitted in connection with that claim. The ALJ found
that Taylor could not return to her past employment, but in accordance with the testimony of
expert vocational witness that there were other jobs she could perform and that she was not
disabled. That decision was affirmed by the Appeals Council and this appeal timely sought.
THE ALJ’S DECISION
In his unfavorable decision, the ALJ discussed the treatment records from the plaintiff's
health-care providers in considerable detail. He noted a successful remote C4-5 fusion by Dr.
Thomas L. Windham. Medical records from September 2011, prior to the onset of disability,
reflect complaints of neck pain with radiation into the upper extremities. Imaging showed mild
lumbar disc bulges at two levels and cervical spondylosis with foraminal narrowing which the
doctor concluded was nonsurgical. Dr. Windham found moderate loss of motion in the neck, a
full range of motion in the upper extremities, with normal motor and sensory function but
diminished reflexes in the upper extremities. Dr. Windham recommended cervical blocks.
Testing for rheumatoid arthritis in November of 2012 was negative. A December 2012 MRI of
the cervical spine showed spondylosis at level CV5-6 and C-6-7 with neuroforaminal narrowing.
An MRI of the lumbar spine showed a left bulge at L2-3 and L3-4 with mild spinal stenosis and
The ALJ also discussed the records of the plaintiff's rheumatologist, Dr. Kirk Eddleman.
Dr. Eddleman noted her complaints of general joint pain and stiffness. Again, Taylor tested
negative for rheumatoid arthritis. The doctor’s impression was polyarthritis, osteoarthritis and
fatigue. The ALJ found that Dr. Eddleman concluded she had no erosive osteoarthritis. This is a
misstatement as the doctor specifically found Taylor suffered from erosive osteoarthritis. She
was treated for her arthritis with anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, therapy and
The ALJ also discussed the records from Dr. Kevin T. Foley. Based on radiographic
studies, Dr. Foley recommended fusion surgery for Taylor at level C5-6 and C6-7, but the
plaintiff did not have the recommended surgery. In April 2013, laboratory testing for rheumatoid
arthritis was again negative. Images of her right and left hip showed no abnormalities. Images
of the cervical spine showed mild osteophytes at level C5-6 and C6 -7 with mild retrolisthesis.
Images of the lumbar spine showed mild degenerative changes.
In September 2013, the record showed that the plaintiff complained of headaches but
examination yielded no abnormal neurological findings. The doctor recommended a brisk
The ALJ’s opinion also noted the plaintiff’s mental impairments. She was seen by Dr.
Jack C. Morgan from 2011 through May 2015. This doctor treated her for anxiety and depressive
symptoms with prescribed medications. He made a provisional diagnosis of attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder and gave the plaintiff GAF scores ranging between 65 and 78. Her
complaints were primarily related to mental issues and stress. She did not report side effects from
the medications. The ALJ also the discussed how these records demonstrated at times the
plaintiff appeared to be on an "even keel" and at other times demonstrated anger and frustration
based on what she felt was her declining physical condition.
The ALJ discussed also discussed the consultative examination performed by Dr.
Michael Whelan, PhD, on the claimant in August 2013. The claimant complained of trust issues
because of marital experiences, reported on her activities of daily living which included hobbies,
doing housework, driving, taking care of pets, and visiting friends. Whelan found she should be
able to handle her own finances. He also noted that she exhibited good concentration during his
examination. His impression was anxiety and depression with moderate to severe dysthymic
disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Dr. Whelan believed that her symptoms were
exacerbated by her alleged pain, and opined that she would probably have difficulty sustaining
concentration based on pain and her physical limitations.
The ALJ found that Taylor had the residual functional capacity to lift/carry and push/pull
20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She could stand or walk for six hours in an
eight-hour work day and could sit for six of eight hours. She could frequently reach, but
overhead reaching was precluded. She could perform frequent handling. The ALJ found she
could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and never ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She was limited to occasional exposure to
unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts and atmospheric conditions.
The ALJ found that because of her mental impairments she was limited to performing
simple routine and repetitive tasks. She could occasionally interact with the public. He also
found that the claimant would tolerate few, if any, changes in the workplace.
The ALJ then explained that much of the plaintiff’s testimony regarding her pain, which
she described as eight or nine on a scale of one to ten, was incredible and inconsistent. He
discounted her testimony about her limitations secondary to her symptoms, again calling the
testimony incredible on several occasions. He noted that her testimony regarding her daily
activities was inconsistent with her reports elsewhere in the record such as the reports she made
to Dr. Whelan. He called her testimony concerning frequent panic attacks incredible and
uncorroborated by her treatment records. He discounted her testimony about not being able to
remember messages an hour later, because nothing in her mental health records indicated any
significant deficits in memory or concentration. He concluded the reports of daily activities were
inconsistent with any severe debilitating impairment and her statements concerning the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely credible.
The ALJ found there was minimal evidence on which to find that her spine disorders and
spondylosis at C5-C6 and C6-7, her arthritic symptoms and mental disorders were disabling.
Among other things the ALJ noted that while the record showed complaints of neck and back
pain and treatment for these problems from 2011 through 2013, there were not records for
treatment of back or neck problems from 2014 and 2015. He again reviewed the pertinent office
records in finding that her physical and mental impairments would have some minimal impact on
her but not greater than set out in the RFC.
The ALJ did provide less weight to the opinion of Dr. Whelan regarding his opinion that
the plaintiff would have difficulty sustaining her concentration and attention due to her pain and
physical limitations, noting that this conclusion was inconsistent with Whelan’s finding that her
concentration was good throughout his examination and to her treating mental health records.
He gave great weight to the treating mental health records which showed overall negative mental
status findings and adequate coping skills.
Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that the plaintiff could
not return to her past work as an EMT. He found that but for the plaintiff’s non-exertional
limitations, her capacity to perform light work would mandate a finding that she was not disabled
under Medical-Vocational Rule 202.14. The vocational expert testified that the plaintiff, with
the additional non-exertional limitations would be able to work as a mail sorter, photographic
machine operator or a shirt folder. There were approximately 2150 such jobs in Mississippi, and
thus the ALJ found her not disabled.
The ALJ did not discuss the disability finding made by the Mississippi employees
retirement system or the brief physicians statements that had been presented to the ALJ at the
hearing that had been used by this state agency in its award of disability benefits.
1. Defining the issues
The plaintiff’s brief separated her complaints into two arguments: 1) That the ALJ erred
when he gave greater weight to the opinions of the state disability determination doctors than to
the “opinion of an individual who actually examined the claimant”; and 2) that the ALJ cherry
picked the evidence to justify denying benefits. It appears to the court that the plaintiff has
actually made two separate arguments within the first argument: a) that the ALJ erred when he
gave greater weight to the opinion of the state disability determination doctor on the plaintiff’s
mental impairments and less weight to the opinion of Dr. Michael Whelan, the consulting
examiner and b) that the ALJ erred when he failed to consider the disability determination of the
Mississippi PERS agency and the PERS supporting evidence -- four statements from Taylor’s
physicians that had been submitted to PERS. The ALJ did not discuss the PERS decision or
these doctor’s statements, nor did he say what weight he would give to these few pages of
documents. The court, therefore, will treat the second part of the first argument as a separate
argument that the failure to address the PERS decision and the supporting documents is
A. Weighing of Mental Health Opinions
A review of the ALJ’s opinion shows that he gave “great weight” to the state agency
doctors regarding both Taylor’s physical capacity and her mental health impairments. It is also
true that while he gave “great weight” to Dr. Whelan’s specific findings on his findings on
examination, he afforded less weight to his conclusions regarding the impact of her physical
problems on her ability to work. The court finds no error in the ALJ’s determination because he
both explained why he discounted part of Whelan’s opinions and because his determination of
the plaintiff’s mental impairments reflects a blending of the opinions of the disability
determination doctors and the consulting physician’s opinion.
Dr. Whelan’s report provided extensive findings regarding the plaintiff’s mental
problems, conditions and general health status. She told Whelan her activity level varied with
her pain. Whelan described her as a very angry woman who had been receiving anger
management training, though she only saw her psychiatrist once every three months. She
reported having anxiety attacks and took Valium as needed. Whelan thought she was angry,
depressed, anxious and in need of psychological counseling. Whelan thought she was of average
intelligence and that her concentration was good during the examination. He stated: “She would
have difficulty sustaining her attention and concentration in a work setting due to pain.” Taylor
suffered from chronic depression but was never suicidal nor did she suffer from any psychotic
symptoms. Whelan thought she had moderately severe dysthymic disorder and generalized
anxiety disorder with some features of panic attacks treated successfully with diazepam. He
found that her Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, which would impact her concentration, was
effectively treated with Adderall and that her concentration is “very good during exam.”
Whelan concluded that “She would probably have difficulty sustaining her concentration and
attention if she was distracted by her physical limitations and pain.”
The ALJ explained that he was discounting Whelan’s opinion concerning Taylor’s
ability to concentrate at work because it was inconsistent with his finding that her concentration
was very good during the examination. Another explanation for limiting the weight given to
Whelan’s opinion is implicit in that the ALJ repeatedly found Taylor’s reports of her pain and
limitation “incredible.” Dr. Whelan, a psychologist, accepted Taylor’s reports that her pain was
very severe. Whelan said she would have difficulty maintaining concentration at work if she
was distracted by pain. Whelan’s opinion that Taylor would have trouble maintaining
concentration was conditioned upon the plaintiff suffering severe pain that would distract her.
When the ALJ found that Taylor did not suffer from such severe pain, Whelan’s opinion was
Additionally, the ALJ’s decision shows that he did consider Whelan’s report when he
assessed Taylor’s mental condition. The disability determination doctors found Taylor suffered
moderate difficulty in social functioning but only mild difficulty in concentration, persistence
and pace. The ALJ determined that the claimant had moderate limitations in concentration
persistence and pace, a conclusion consistent with Whelan’s opinion.
Accordingly, the court finds there was no error in the ALJ’s handling of the opinion
evidence on the plaintiff’s mental condition.
THE PERS DECISION AND THE DOCTORS’ STATEMENTS
Next, the plaintiff argues the ALJ erred because he never mentioned that the Mississippi
Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) found the plaintiff was disabled, nor did he
address the supporting physicians’ statements. The plaintiff asserts this is a violation of SSR 069
03p, 2006 WL 2329939 (Aug. 9, 2006), which notes that while decisions on disability by other
governmental agencies are not binding on the Social Security Administration, those decisions
must be considered by the ALJs. The Commissioner confesses that this omission is error but
argues that the error is harmless.
The notification of the favorable PERS disability determination and the doctors’
statements were appended to a letter from the claimant’s attorney requesting a favorable
determination or at least expedited consideration based on the PERS decision. This letter and the
physicians’ statements are listed as an “On the Record Request” and included, according to the
Exhibit List at the end of the hearing transcript, with the jurisdictional documents and notices but
not among the medical exhibits. Given the otherwise thorough, detailed and lengthy opinion, it
seems likely that the ALJ, while clearly aware of the PERS decision, may not have been aware
of the physicians’ statements. The court must determine whether the omission to address the
PERS decision and the statements was reversible error.
First, it is important to note that the decisions of another governmental agency are not
binding on the Social Security Administration. The plaintiff has not shown the standards
applicable to the PERS determination. Did PERS simply find that Taylor was disabled because
she could not continue her past job? The Commissioner concurred that she cannot do that job
anymore, but that finding does not necessarily mean the plaintiff is disabled under SSA
regulations. Furthermore, whatever guidance, insight or persuasiveness a reasoned decision
awarding benefits might provide to a Social Security ALJ, assuming an identical standard
applied to the PERS determination, there is no such decision in this record. The ALJ was
provided with only that disability benefits had been awarded. Consequently, the court finds that
the failure to mention the PERS disability determination was not prejudicial error.
The statements by Taylor’s physicians are potentially more problematic. The ALJ
reviewed the records of Taylor’s treating physicians and in his opinion gave great weight to their
findings, examinations, opinions, and recommendations as set forth in those treatment records.
He discussed these records in significant detail. The question becomes whether consideration of
this handful of other documents, not mentioned in the opinion, would likely alter the outcome or
cast doubt on whether there was substantial evidence to support the decision. Audler v. Astrue,
501 3d 446, 448 (5th Cir. 2007); Morris v Bowen, 864 F.2d 333, 335 (5th Cir. 1988).
The first statement is from Dr. John Seibel with Sunset Cardiovascular and appears to be
immaterial to the decision. His medical records were not included in the SSA record. The report
references attached medical records from the latest visit more than a year before the statement.
Seibel indicated that Taylor had no restrictions.
The second statement comes from Dr. Barr. Dr. Barr lists the plaintiff’s primary
complaint as left shoulder pain. He says she was to have nerve blocks to her cervical spine,
suffers neck pain and has numbness in her fingers. In his statement to PERS, Barr indicated that
she would have limited use of her left hand and limited lifting. Barr only saw the plaintiff for a
limited period of time, beginning with a visit in December 2012, and a follow up visit in
February 2013, for complaints of neck pain. There is a third visit in April 2013. Given that
Taylor is right handed, the ALJ’s restrictions on lifting, and reaching overhead are consistent
with Barr’s PERS statement.
The third statement from Dr. Kevin Foley is consistent with his office records. He
reports Taylor’s cervical spondylosis, cervical radiculopathy and that he recommended a twolevel cervical discectomy and fusion surgery for relief of her symptoms. Because she did not
had the surgery performed, Foley was unable to state whether she would suffer any permanent
impairments. Foley’s PERS statement adds nothing to the records the ALJ already considered.
The final statement comes from Dr. Joseph Messina, the plaintiff’s internal medicine
doctor and primary care physician. Doctor Messina’s PERS statement notes Taylor has
osteoarthritis and degenerative cervical disc disease, both of which he characterizes as severe.
He says she has a poor prognosis for improvement and cannot do significant or repetitive lifting.
He notes impaired grip strength in her left, non-dominant hand, and some bicep weakness. He
alone lists a specific limitation, stating that “she has been advised to avoid any significant lifting”
which he said was less than 2 pounds, or performing any repetitive stooping or bending. The
RFC already includes the limitation on stooping and bending, but does not incorporate the
extreme lifting restriction.
The court notes that from the phrasing of the restriction, it is unclear whether Messina
meant to issue an opinion regarding lifting restriction, or he was simply stating a restriction that
he thought some other doctor had imposed. If the latter, the information he was providing was
erroneous because neither Dr. Foley’s PERS statement, nor his records, nor the treatment records
of Drs. Barr and Eddleman contain such a limitation.
While Dr. Messina, as a primary care provider, was no doubt very familiar with the
course of treatment provided to Taylor, he does not appear to have been directly involved in
treating her neck, back or shoulder problems, which would be the genesis of any lifting
restriction. He is noted throughout the records of the Drs. Morgan, Foley and Eddelman as the
referral source. While Dr. Messina had a long-standing treating relationship with Taylor, there
are only two visits in the records after the date of onset. In a March 2013 examination, he
followed up with her for hypertension and left arm weakness. She was also seen by Messina in
September of 2013 for follow-up on her hypertension and for bruising on her arm.
It, therefore, appears that in this small group of PERS documents, only Messina offers a
restriction not included in the RFC. When the court cannot be certain that the ALJ considered a
piece of evidence in the record, this court sometimes prefers to err on the side of remanding the
case, if the added information might make a difference. But in this case because of the ALJ’s
strongly worded rejection of the plaintiff’s claims of pain and limitations, it is difficult to find
any reasonable possibility that the ALJ’s decision would be altered by remand demanding
explicit consideration of Messina’s opinion. The lifting limitation in Messina’s PERS statement
involves treatment by another physician; is not consistent with the treating specialist’s PERS
statement; and is not consistent with Messina’s treatment records.
Accordingly, the court finds that, though the failure to discuss the doctor’s PERS
statements is clearly error, the plaintiff has not shown that the error was prejudicial.
3. Failure to fully and fairly evaluate all evidence
The plaintiff next argues that the ALJ did not fairly and fully evaluate all evidence in the
case, but rather cherry-picked the evidence to justify the denial of benefits. The plaintiff argues
that the determination of the RFC is particularly crucial in this case because if Taylor’s RFC is
lowered from a limited range of light work to a sedentary exertion level, with her age and
education, she would be found disabled pursuant to the Medical Vocational guidelines.
The court must be cognizant both of the limits on its scope of review and its obligation to
prevent an arbitrary selection of only evidence unfavorable to the plaintiff. The law governing
these two different tasks appears to be sometimes contradictory. On appeal, the court must
affirm decisions supported by substantial evidence, which is more than a scintilla of evidence.
Perales, 402 U.S. at 401. The courts must affirm even if evidence preponderates against the
Commisioner’s decision. Bowling, 36 F.3d at 434. It may find “no substantial evidence” only
where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence.
Harrell, 862 F.2d 475. The caselaw cautions that appellate courts shall not to reweigh the
evidence, nor to substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Hollis, 837 F.2d at 1383.
Nevertheless, the appellate courts are directed to scrutinize the entire record to assure that an
ALJ has considered all of the evidence in the record, rather than simply picking and choosing
only the evidence that supports his position. Loza v. Apfel, 219 F.2d 378 (5th Cir. 2000).
In the present case, the plaintiff claims the ALJ inappropriately selected only that
evidence that supported his decision and ignored other evidence and even misinterpreted the
records. The ALJ did make a factual error in his discussion of Dr. Eddleman’s records when he
found the doctor said Taylor did not have erosive arthritis. Eddleman, to the contrary, thought
Taylor suffered from erosive arthritis and discussed treatment options with her. But the ALJ
discussed these records in some detail. Eddleman’s testing showed she did not have rheumatoid
arthritis. The ALJ noted that Eddelman found Taylor has polyarthritis and generalized joint pain
and stiffness. He noted Eddleman’s finding that Taylor had a non-tender spine and back on
examination. He noted Eddleman’s findings that she had no edema, deformation of her joints
nor active synovitis of her joints at his examination. Finally, the ALJ found that Taylor’s
osteoarthritis was a severe impairment.
The plaintiff also takes issue with the ALJ’s discussion of an MRI performed in
December 2012. The ALJ mentions this MRI which he described as showing “spondylosis at
level C5-6 and C6-7 with neuroforaminal narrowing.” The MRI noted a fusion of C4-5, later
identified by Dr. Foley as a Klippel-Feil anomaly. The MRI report mentions a spondylitic bar
seen posteriorly at C5-6 with bilateral recess and neuroforaminal narrowing, and a spondylitic
bar at C6-7 centrally abutting against the spinal cord and extending into the left lateral recess and
foramina. The plaintiff also notes that Dr. Foley’s review of the MRI finds she had degeneration
and cervical spondylosis at C5-6 and C6-7 and severe foraminal stenosis bilaterally. The plaintiff
argues that this evidence is inconsistent with the ALJ’s finding that the plaintiff had overall
“mild” objective findings.
The court is unconvinced that any difference between how the ALJ described this MRI
and the precise language of the report and Dr. Foley’s description represents parsing the records
or ignoring findings favorable the plaintiff. First, there are indeed other “mild” radiographic
findings in the record. The plaintiff also complained of lumbar pain radiating into the hips and
her leg, but another lumbar MRI showed only “mild” spinal stenosis with neuroforaminal
narrowing, and images of the hip showed no abnormality.
It also does not appear that the ALJ disregarded or questioned Dr. Foley’s findings
regarding the spondylosis at C5-6 and C6-7. The ALJ expressly acknowledged that Foley found
many of Taylor’s complaints were consistent with the radiographic findings at C5-6 and C 6-7
and acknowledged that Dr. Foley had recommended surgery to alleviate her symptoms. The ALJ
questioned the severity of the plaintiff’s resulting symptoms, not based on his reading of the
radiographic findings, but, among other things, because the plaintiff elected to forego the
recommended surgery; had a one-year gap where she received no treatment; and reported
substantial activities of daily living that were inconsistent with her testimony at the hearing.
After a complete review of the record, the court finds that the ALJ considered the
evidence of record and fairly evaluated the same.
After considering the matter, the court is satisfied that substantial evidence supports the
decision and that any errors committed were harmless. Accordingly, the Commissioner’s
decision is affirmed. A judgment in accordance with the opinion shall follow.
THIS the 3rd day of October, 2017.
/s/ David A. Sanders
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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