United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
September 21, 2012, the claimant, Bennett Evans, protectively
applied for disability and disability insurance benefits
under Title II and part A of Title XVIII of the Social
Security Act. (R. 145). The claimant initially alleged
disability commencing on June 16, 2012 because of coronary
artery disease, cervical spine disease, depression, acid
reflux, insomnia, glaucoma, and cataracts. (R. 145, 184). The
Commissioner denied the claim on December 26, 2012. (R. 87).
The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on
January 22, 2013. (R. 95).
decision dated May 1, 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.
7-28). On October 6, 2015 the Appeals Council denied the
claimant's requests for review. (R. 1-4). Consequently,
the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The
claimant has exhausted his 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 AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.
issue before the court is whether, under the Eleventh
Circuit's pain standard, the ALJ properly assessed the
claimant's subjective complaints of disabling pain.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is
limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if the
ALJ applied the correct legal standards and if substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's 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 the 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. 34). The claimant has a twelfth
grade education and past relevant work as a shredder,
delivery driver, produce clerk, and material handler. (R. 62,
185). The claimant alleges disability based on coronary
artery disease, cervical spine disease, depression, acid
reflux, insomnia, glaucoma, and cataracts. (R. 184).
and Mental Impairments
September 6, 2005, the claimant visited the University of
Alabama at Birmingham emergency room because a heavy tire
fell while the claimant was working, hitting him in the
chest. On the same day, Dr. Tom McElderry, a cardiologist,
diagnosed the claimant with a chest wall contusion and
hypertension. Dr. McElderry referred the claimant to the
Kirklin Clinic for further hypertension evaluation after
discharge. (R 269-74, 279).
recommendation of his emergency room doctors, the claimant
visited the Birmingham Veteran's Association Medical
Clinic to establish primary care on November 30, 2005. During
this initial visit, nurse practitioner Jennifer Dardy-Bonner
determined that the claimant still suffered from hypertension
and diagnosed the claimant with gastroesophageal reflux
disease (gerd). She prescribed a blood pressure regimen
consisting of Ramipril, Felodipine, and HCTZ to stabilize his
hypertension, and Omeprazole for his gerd. (R. 1108-1112).
his yearly follow-up at the VA on August 24, 2006 with Dr.
Felicia R. Noerager, the claimant's hypertension and gerd
were both controlled. Similarly, on January 4, 2007, the
claimant's hypertension and gerd were stable; however,
Dr. Noerager sent the claimant to the emergency room because
of an abnormal EKG. Ultimately, all emergency room tests and
evaluations were normal. (R. 1095-97, 1102).
claimant continued to see Dr. Noerager for two yearly
follow-up appointments, and the claimant's hypertension
and gerd remained controlled until 2009. On February 27,
2009, Dr. Noerager reported that the claimant's
hypertension was poorly controlled because of his failure to
consistently take prescribed medications. Dr. Noerager also
prescribed Ibprofin for claimant's new hip and back pain
complaints. Similarly, during a September 15, 2009 follow-up,
the claimant stated that he no longer took hypertension and
gerd medication, but continued to experience chest pain. (R.
April 27, 2010, the claimant received a Kenalog shot and a
Lortab perscription for back pain, and Dr. Noerager ordered
an MRI of the claimant's back. Dr. Noerager also reported
that the claimant's hypertension and gerd were again
stabilized with medication. An MRI of the claimant's back
taken on May 18, 2010 showed narrowing of the claimant's
spinal column. (R. 1003-05, 1011).
claimant called the VA on October 13, 2011 to renew his
hypertension, gerd, and pain medications; however, the
medical clinic, not having seen the claimant in over a year,
did not have authorization to renew. Subsequently, on
December 8, 2011, the claimant visited Dr. Noerager for his
yearly follow-up. During this appointment, Dr. Noerager
ordered x-rays and a stress test, and prescribed tramadol for
the claimant's chest pain. The claimant's
hypertension and gerd both continued to remain stable. (R.
letter dated December 13, 2011, Dr. Noerager notified the
claimant that the x-rays showed no abnormalities. Similarly,
after a nuclear cardiac stress test conducted on January 20,
2012, Dr. Noerager sent another letter notifying the claimant
that the stress test was also normal. (R. 981-86).
April 18, 2012, the claimant called the VA hospital
complaining of chronic pain. Dr. Noerager scheduled a
follow-up appointment to address this pain on April 24, 2012.
During the appointment, Dr. Noerager diagnosed the claimant
with hematuria and lipoma, ordered an MRI, and prescribed
Roboxin, Tramadol, and Gabapentin for lower back pain. (R.
claimant underwent the MRI on June 1, 2012. During the MRI
follow-up on June 5, 2012, Dr. Noerager diagnosed the
claimant with spinal stenosis and lipomatosis caused by mild
central canal narrowing and cord compression at ¶ 6-C7,
and referred the claimant to the VA neurosurgeon. Before the
neurology consultation, however, the claimant was admitted to
the intensive care unit and diagnosed with angina on June 17,
2012. (R. 943, 972-73).
claimant remained in the hospital for three days. On June 18,
2012, the claimant underwent an angiography and cardiac
catheterization surgery to place a heart catheter and stent
in the claimant's coronary artery. Although the angina
was ultimately unresolved, the treating physician prescribed
Plaviz and Lisinopril and discharged the claimant on June 19,
2012. During the claimant's June 28, 2012 emergency room
follow-up, Dr. Noerager reported no substantial changes
regarding his hypertension, gerd, chest pain, lower back
pain, hematuria, or lipoma. (R. 877-78, 906, 925).
Dr. Noerager's referral, the claimant also visited Dr.
Carin Eubanks at the VA the mental health department on June
28, 2012. Dr. Eubanks diagnosed the claimant with moderate
psychological distress and recommended future treatment, but
the claimant refused further treatment. (R. 876-77).
17, 2012, the claimant visited Dr. Gilbert J. Perry at the VA
Cardiology Clinic to follow-up on his cardiac surgery. Dr.
Perry reported that the claimant's hypertension was
controlled, and referred the claimant to cardiac rehab. (R.
his yearly follow-up on August 7, 2012, Dr. Noerager stated
that the claimant's hypertension was controlled; however,
his gerd was not improving because he no longer took his
medication. She noted that the claimant needed to stop any
activity causing chest pain, and that he should not return to
work until early September 2012 after cardiac rehab. On the
same day, the ...