United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
12, 2012, the claimant, Anita Davis, protectively applied for
disability benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social
Security Act. (R. 132-147). The claimant alleged disability
beginning on June 7, 2012, because of chronic moderately
severe hip and back pain. (R. 33, 50). The Commissioner
denied the claims on September 7, 2012. The claimant filed a
timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge, and the ALJ held a video hearing on November 30, 2013.
decision dated January 23, 2014, the ALJ found that the
claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security
Act and was, therefore, ineligible for social security
benefits. (R. 11-20). On June 21, 2015, the Appeals Council
denied the claimant's requests for review. (R. 1-5).
Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration. The claimant has exhausted her administrative
remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons
stated below, this court reverses and remands the decision of
the ALJ erred in evaluating the claimant's allegations of
the limiting effects of her symptoms because substantial
evidence does not support her findings regarding the
claimant's need for a cane and her ability to frequently
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb stairs.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is
limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if she
applied the correct legal standards and if substantial
evidence supports her 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.
1986); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
claimant was fifty-four years old at the time of the
ALJ's final decision (R. 29); has a high school education
(R. 73); has past relevant work as a bus attendant, sewing
machine operator, sales clerk, and day care worker (R. 45);
and alleges disability based on chronic moderately severe hip
and back pain (R. 33, 50).
claimant sought treatment on April 6, 2010 with Dr. Joshua
Miller at Cooper Green Health Center, complaining of lower
back pain that radiated into her left leg and calf. She
reported to Dr. Miller that the Ultram and Parafon Forte that
she was taking for pain was not working. He prescribed 500 mg
of Naproxen and Tylenol 3 for pain and ordered an MRI of her
lumbar spine. The claimant underwent an MRI of her lumbar
spine on May 11, 2010 that showed shallow lordosis or
curvature of the spine; normal disc heights with no gross
desiccation; no disc bulge or herniation; a well-preserved
central canal; “mild ligamentous hypertrophy at the
lower of two levels with earliest of facet changes resulting
[in] mild foraminal compromise bilaterally”; and
otherwise unremarkable findings considering the
claimant's age. (R. 316, 332).
8, 2010, the claimant returned to Dr. Miller complaining of
back pain. Dr. Miller noted that the claimant was involved in
a car accident in 2006 and that litigation was pending based
on that accident. Regarding whether the pending litigation
contributed to the claimant's complaints of continued
pain, he noted “? factor in lack of improvement.”
Dr. Miller noted the findings on the MRI the previous month
and referred the claimant to physical therapy. (R. 269).
claimant began physical therapy at Cooper Green on June 28,
2010, and returned on July 9, 16, and 30. On July 9, she
reported constant pain and numbness in her lower extremities,
but the therapist reported that “despite constant
complaints of pain/numbness, [the claimant] tolerate[d]
exercises with no signs of discomfort.” The claimant
stated on July 16 that she had “on and off days with
pain, ” but she again tolerated the session with no
complaints of pain or discomfort. On July 30, the claimant
reported that she continued to do her exercise at home, but
she continued to experience pain and had swelling in her
ankles. The therapist noted that the claimant had reached the
“maximum benefit” of physical therapy; encouraged
her to continue her maintenance program at home; and
discharged her from physical therapy. (R. 264-267).
physical therapy evaluation form dated September 21, 2010,
the therapist reported that the claimant reported improvement
in her pain, but listed her pain level as a
“7/10” on the pain scale. The therapist also
noted that the claimant had weakened strength of
“4/5” in her lower extremities; had difficulty
with her “household activities” and
“standing activities”; was able to tolerate
prolonged standing and walking with some pain; could
participate in her activities of daily living; and should
continue her maintenance program at home. (R. 268).
September 21, 2010, the claimant returned to Dr. Miller
complaining of constant pain in her back and legs when
standing and swelling in both feet and ankles. Dr. Miller
noted that the claimant completed physical therapy and was to
complete a home exercise program. He continued the