United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division
LEON D. WALLACE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
C LYNWOOD SMITH, Jr., District Judge.
Claimant, Leon Wallace, commenced this action on November 20, 2013, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and thereby denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance, and supplemental security income benefits. For the reasons stated herein, the court finds that the Commissioner's ruling is due to be affirmed.
The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).
Claimant contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts that the ALJ improperly considered the opinions of claimant's treating physician and the medical expert who testified during the administrative hearing. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that these contentions are without merit, and the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.
The opinion of a treating physician "must be given substantial or considerable weight unless good cause' is shown to the contrary." Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). Good cause exists when "(1) [the] treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records." Id. The ALJ is not required to accept a conclusory statement from a medical source - even a treating source - that a claimant is unable to work, because the decision whether a claimant is disabled is not a medical opinion, but is a decision "reserved to the Commissioner." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Social Security regulations also provide that, in considering what weight to give any medical opinion, the Commissioner should evaluate: the extent of the examining or treating relationship between the doctor and patient; whether the doctor's opinion can be supported by medical signs and laboratory findings; whether the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole; the doctor's specialization; and other factors. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). See also Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986) ("The weight afforded a physician's conclusory statements depends upon the extent to which they are supported by clinical or laboratory findings and are consistent with other evidence as to claimant's impairments.").
A. Medical Expert Testimony
First, claimant asserts that the ALJ did not properly consider the testimony of Dr. Darius Ghazi, the orthopedic surgeon who testified as a medical expert during the administrative hearing. Dr. Ghazi did not personally examine or treat claimant; instead, he reviewed the medical evidence to determine whether claimant "has a medically determined impairment and listing or an RFC." Dr. Ghazi opined that, while claimant did meet any of the listings for orthopedic impairments, he did suffer from the medically determined impairment of chronic pain syndrome. Dr. Ghazi noted that claimant alleged
a lot of knee pain, hand pain, and there's no x-ray to report on the records indicating the extent of the degenerative changes of the knee; whether he needs knee replacement or could be treated with surgery. My guess is that he should consult in conservative treatment because at age 42, usually the joints do not wear out to the extent that they need replacement.
After studying claimant's records, including the medical source statements from the consultative examiner and treating physician, Dr. Ghazi stated the following with regard to claimant's residual functional capacity:
His treating physician, Dr. McQuill, indicated that he cannot lift more than 10 pounds frequently and cannot climb ladders or engage in any kind of risky type of occupation. Again, I don't know what - you know pain is subjective, your honor. You cannot measure it, nor can you feel it, you rely on what the patient says. He has been treated with a lot of pain medicine and pain management and there is not sufficient evidence in the record indicating that he could be treated surgically or anything could be corrected surgically, by an orthopedic surgeon. And so his condition is basically chronic pain syndrome; unable to conservative management [ sic ].
The ALJ assigned great weight to Dr. Ghazi's opinion that claimant did not meet a listing, because Dr. Ghazi was "uniquely qualified to give an opinion on whether the claimant's impairments meet a listing because he has had the opportunity to review the entire record and to listen to the claimant's testimony at the hearing, " and because Dr. Ghazi "specialized in orthopedics and is familiar with the Social Security Administration's disability programs." The ALJ did not cite Dr. Ghazi's testimony when he was discussing claimant's residual functional capacity.
Claimant's first challenge to the ALJ's analysis of Dr. Ghazi's testimony is that, as a non-examining, reviewing physician, Dr. Ghazi is analogous to a state agency medical consultant, whose opinion should be afforded only little weight. That argument simply is not supported by applicable authority. To the contrary, Social Security regulations provide that the opinions of state agency consultants are entitled to substantial consideration. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2)(i) & 416.927(e)(2)(i) (stating that, while the ALJ is not bound by the findings of a State Agency consultant, the ALJ should consider such a consultant to be both "highly qualified" and an "expert" in Social Security disability evaluation). See also Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1084 (5th Cir. 1981) ("The Secretary was justified in accepting the opinion of Dr. Gordon, a qualified reviewing physician, that was supported by the evidence, and in rejecting the conclusory statement of Dr. Harris, a treating physician, that was contrary to the evidence."); Surber v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, No. 3:11-cv-1235-J-MCR, 2013 WL 806325, *5 (M.D. Fla. March 5, 2013) (slip copy) ("State agency medical consultants are non-examining sources who are highly qualified physicians and experts in Social Security disability evaluation, and their opinions may be entitled to great weight if supported by evidence in the record.").
Claimant next asserts that Dr. Ghazi's testimony "was not persuasive for the purpose of determining an RFC or even of reconciling or distinguishing the conflicting opinions...." The court agrees with that statement, as a factual matter. Even though Dr. Ghazi stated during the administrative hearing that he had sufficient information to offer an opinion about claimant's residual functional capacity, he did not actually offer such an opinion. He mentioned the restrictions imposed by claimant's treating physician, but he did not state whether he agreed with those restrictions, and he did not offer his independent opinion about claimant's residual functional capacity. Accordingly, claimant is correct that it would have been improper for the ALJ to rely upon Dr. Ghazi's testimony in evaluating ...