Thompson v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Roy S. Payne on 9/26/2017. (nkl, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
Case No. 2:16-CV-0794-RSP
On January 13, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Richard LaFata issued a decision finding
that Petitioner Rita Michelle Thompson was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act from August 6, 2013 through the date of the decision. Ms. Thompson, who was 40 with a
high school education at that time, was found to be suffering from severe impairments consisting
of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and osteoarthritis of the right hand and left knee.
These impairments resulted in restrictions on her ability to work, and she had not engaged in any
substantial gainful activity since at least August 6, 2013. Before that time, she had worked as a
nursing home cook and aide, cashier, housekeeper, warehouse worker and delivery driver. She
was unable to return to those types of work.
After reviewing the medical records and receiving the testimony at the September 23, 2014
hearing, the ALJ determined that Petitioner had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform
less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in the Social Security regulations. She can
only occasionally lift or carry 10 pounds, and frequently lift or carry less than 10 pounds. She has
the same limits on pushing and pulling. She can sit for six hours, and stand or walk for two hours,
in an eight-hour workday. She can frequently handle, finger and feel with the right upper
extremity. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs,
but not ladders, ropes or scaffolds, or unprotected heights. Her time off task can be accommodated
by normal breaks.
Considering Petitioner’s RFC, the ALJ relied upon the testimony of Vocational Expert
Phunda Pennington Yarbrough and found that Petitioner had the residual functional capacity to
perform several jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including document
preparer or election clerk. This resulted in a finding of no disability, rendering her ineligible for
Supplemental Security Income benefits. Petitioner appealed this finding to the Appeals Council,
which denied review on June 16, 2016. Petitioner timely filed this action for judicial review
seeking remand of the case for award of benefits.
This Court's review is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner's final
decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether the
Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in evaluating the evidence. See Martinez v.
Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir.1995); Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir.1994),
cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1120, 115 S.Ct. 1984, 131 L.Ed.2d 871 (1995). Substantial evidence is more
than a scintilla, but can be less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th
Cir.1995). A finding of no substantial evidence will be made only where there is a “conspicuous
absence of credible choices” or “no contrary medical evidence.” Abshire v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 638,
640 (5th Cir.1988) (citing Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir.1983)). In reviewing the
substantiality of the evidence, a court must consider the record as a whole and “must take into
account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Singletary v. Bowen, 798 F.2d 818,
823 (5th Cir.1986).
Petitioner raises three issues on this appeal:
1. The ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence as Plaintiff meets Listing
1.02(a)(b)(d), and 1.04..
2. The ALJ erred in failing to properly consider Plaintiff’s non-exertional limitation and
consider the combined effects of Plaintiff’s impairments (exertional and nonexertional).
3. The ALJ did not give Plaintiff’s treating physicians’ opinions proper weight.
Issue No. 1:
Part of the difficulty with considering Petitioner’s arguments involves the wide range of
medical complaints that she raises in her treatment history and testimony. The argument that she
meets Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) and 1.04 (disorders of the spine) does not attempt
to correlate her medical history with the particular requirements of the Listings. The requirements
of the Listings are exacting. E.g., Bullock v. Astrue, 277 Fed.Appx. 325 (5th Cir. 2007). Petitioner
relies upon evidence in the record that she uses a cane to walk. However, the Listing requires
bilateral canes or a walker. Id. The ALJ outlined his reasons for finding that Petitioner did not
meet either Listing (Tr. 16), and Petitioner has not shown that those reasons are not supported by
Petitioner also complains in this issue that the ALJ discounted the credibility of her
testimony regarding pain and other symptoms without proper explanation. The Commissioner
concedes that while the ALJ has great discretion in weighing the evidence and determining
credibility, there are parameters governing those findings. For instance, in Social Security Ruling
96-7, the Commissioner clarified 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. The determination or decision must
contain specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case
record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any
subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the individual's statements and the
reasons for that weight.
A review of the ALJ’s opinion, especially at pages 4 through 8, shows that the ALJ did
perform the required analysis of the record and give the specific reasons for his credibility
determination. For instance, Petitioner’s complaints at the hearing concerning her inability to use
her right hand to grasp any objects (Tr. 63-64) featured prominently in the criticism of the RFC
determined by the ALJ. However, on September 9, 2014, just two weeks before the ALJ’s hearing,
Dr. Jatavallabhula, the neurosurgeon who performed Petitioner’s cervical fusion surgery,
examined Petitioner and reported that she had no impairment of fingering or handling. (Tr. 1059).
Similarly, Dr. Strahan, her treating orthopedic specialist, found on June 17, 2014, that her “elbow,
wrist and hand function is within normal limits.” (Tr. 888). These reports and the other medical
records detailed by the ALJ show that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ’s finding
that the Petitioner’s complaints of pain and disabling symptoms were not fully credible.
Issue No. 2:
The second issue is closely related to the first. Petitioner argues that Petitioner’s pain
created both exertional and non-exertional limitations on her functional capacity that the ALJ
failed to include in his RFC. Petitioner is able to point to evidence in the record, such as her
testimony and the opinions of Dr. Hozdic, one of her treating physicians. However, Petitioner
cannot contest the fact that other treating physicians, such as Dr. Jatavallabhula and Dr. Strahan,
cited above, offered opinions that support the ALJ. It is the function of the ALJ to weigh
conflicting medical evidence, and his findings are not to be set aside unless they have no substantial
support in the record.
As for the argument that Petitioner cannot sit for 6 hours per workday, as required for
sedentary work, even Dr. Hozdic found that she could. (Tr. 1052). While superficially persuasive,
the argument that the home health assistance for Petitioner confirms her disability is discounted
by the fact that the record shows that this assistance was simply provided by “a friend.” (Tr. 1063).
Issue No. 3:
The last issue argues that the ALJ erred in failing to accord sufficient weight to the opinions
of treating physicians Dr. Hozdic and Dr. Syed. In his September 12, 2014 report, Dr. Hozdic
definitely found that Petitioner was unable to perform any work (although he did find her able to
perform handling and fingering “frequently”). (Tr. 1053).
Dr. Syed, the pain management
specialist, did not find her disabled as Petitioner maintains in Brief. As noted by the ALJ, Dr. Syed
found no restriction in the range of motion in Petitioner’s spine or extremities, no maladaptive pain
behaviors, and no need for ambulatory aids as of October 21, 2013. (Tr. 411). The ALJ assigned
reasons for discounting the opinion of Dr. Hozdic, including the lack of any record of an
examination contemporaneous with the disability assessment, and the complete contrast with the
assessment from Dr. Jatavallabhula, the doctor who performed Petitioner’s surgery, dated just two
days before. The ALJ is entrusted with weighing the competing medical evidence and the Court
finds that the record supports his decision.
Determinations of the limiting effects of chronic pain are always challenging. A review of
this record convinces the Court that the ALJ was within his broad discretion is evaluating the
medical evidence and the testimony of Petitioner. Accordingly, the finding of the Commissioner
is affirmed and this action is dismissed.
SIGNED this 3rd day of January, 2012.
SIGNED this 26th day of September, 2017.
ROY S. PAYNE
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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