United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
September 14, 2012, the claimant, Joy Streetman Smith,
applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental
security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.
(R. 64). The claimant alleges disability commencing on August
20, 2012 because of lumbar and cervical degenerative disc
diseases and chronic pain syndrome. She also listed anxiety
and depression as contributing to her inability to work.
Id. at 64, 66, & 168. The Commissioner denied
the claim both initially and on reconsideration. Id.
The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on April
14, 2014. (R. 9).
decision dated June 6, 2014, the ALJ found that the claimant
was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. (R.
72). On September 18, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the
claimant's request for review; consequently, the
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 1).
The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and
this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1631(c)(3). For the reasons stated
below, this court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner
the ALJ properly applied the Eleventh Circuit's pain
STANDARD OF REVIEW
standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is
limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if he
applied the correct legal standards and if substantial
evidence supports his factual conclusions. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d
1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826
F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).
of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal
conclusions, including determination of the proper standards
to be applied in evaluating claims.” Walker,
826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the
Commissioner's factual determinations de novo.
The court will affirm those factual determinations that are
supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial
evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It
means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).
court must keep in mind that opinions, such as whether a
claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a
claimant's residual functional capacity, and the
application of vocational factors, “are not medical
opinions, …but are, instead, opinions on issues
reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative
findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would
direct the determination or decision of disability.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the
claimant meets a Listing and is qualified for Social Security
disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and
the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the
evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to
disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain
facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long
as substantial evidence in the record supports it.
court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to
determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s
factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A
reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the
record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must
view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence
that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ.
Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to
disability benefits when the person 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
12 months....” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (1) (A). To make
this determination the Commissioner employs a five-step,
sequential evaluation process:
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the
specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt.
P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads
either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to
a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question,
other than step three, leads to a determination of “not
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir.
Records Regarding Physical Impairments (Back and Neck Pain)
Pre-2012 Medical Records
claimant's medical records indicated that she had a
history of back and neck pain that dated back to the
1990's, including neck surgery years ago for herniated
discs resulting in cervical fusion. (R. 247, 328). A 1999 MRI
report reflected that she had a L4-5 disc protrusion on the
left of her spine with the remaining disc spaces satisfactory
and no spinal stenosis. (R. 326-27). The Brookwood orthopedic
practice treated her in the 1990's, giving her a series
of epidural blocks that gave her relief, and then saw her
sporadically in 2006 for back pain, when x-rays on her spine
showed only minimal change. Her doctors again ordered pain
blocks, and she appeared to receive relief, as another
lengthy treatment gap ensued. (R. 327). The orthopedic group
resumed treating her regularly six years later in 2012. (R.
2009, records from Cooper Green Hospital and Dr. Adrienne
Carter, a primary care/internal medicine physician, indicated
that the claimant received treatment for the following
conditions: 1. Depression/anxiety; 2. Bipolar; 3. PTSD; and
4. Chronic pain in lower back and neck. Dr. Carter's
records contain an alert for prescription drug overuse/abuse
and also detailed a history of overuse of opioids. (R.
238-39). The mention of drug misuse/abuse dating back to 2008
occurred in other charts as well, such as Cooper Green
Hospital charts. (R. 238-39; 244, 246). However, for the last
several years, the claimant has been on a pain management
plan at the pain clinic with regular testing to check for
drug misuse, and she is complying with the plan with no
current record of drug misuse. (R. 488-510 & 527-552).
Orthopedics Records beginning in 2012
February 2, 2012, treating orthopedist Dr. Dewey Jones noted
that a gap of a number of years had occurred between his last
treatment of claimant and her visit that day. He stated that
straight leg raisings produced discomfort and that the
claimant had some sensory deficit on the lateral left calf
compared to the right, but that range of motion of both hips
was normal. Dr. Jones reviewed the 1999 MRI showing a 4-5
disc protrusion on the left lumbar spine and ordered
follow-up x-rays. Dr. Jones interpreted these x-rays of her
lumbar spine as showing that the “lateral” of the
spine was within normal limits and that the L5 area, from
where her pain apparently emanated, showed no changes in the
sacroiliac joint, intact pedicles of the vertebral arch, and
“a little equivocal narrowing of the L5-SI [joint] but
not remarkable.” Dr. Jones also stated that an
anteroposterior xray view showed no changes in the SI joints.
The doctor planned to proceed with epidural blocks with Dr.
Sovic, which had given her relief in the past, and if blocks
did not work, to consider a lumbar MRI to ensure that
“we are not overlooking anything.” (R. 328).
medical records from the pain clinic described the March 2012
MRI results as follows: “The lumbar vertebral bodies
are normal in height and signal intensity. There is normal
lumbar lordosis. Degenerative disc disease and minimal
[changes].” (R. 497). Dr. Marion Sovic of Pain
Management Service, P.C. sent a letter to Dr. Dewey Jones ...