United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge
Jennifer Hutchins brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the
Acting Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her applications for
disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security
Income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). The case has been assigned
to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to
this court's general order of reference. The parties have
consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition
of the matter. (Doc. 12). See 28 U.S.C. §
636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the
relevant law, the undersigned finds that the
Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.
18, 2012, Hutchins protectively filed applications for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits and
for SSI, alleging disability commencing June 11, 2012. (R.
187-200, 262). She amended her alleged onset date to
October 16, 2012. (R. 16, 70, 72). Following the initial
denial of her applications, Hutchins requested a hearing
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R.
99-100). The hearing was held on December 3, 2013. (R.
12-43). The ALJ issued a decision on July 10, 2014, finding
that Hutchins was not disabled. (R. 68-80).
requested Appeals Council review on August 13, 2014. (R. 10,
353-57). The Appeals Council initially remanded the case
because it found that the ALJ had not proffered the
consultant examination report of Dr. Walid Freji to Hutchins.
(R. 85-87). The Appeals Council later determined that the ALJ
had in fact proffered the report to Hutchins. (R. 14). It
vacated the remand order on February 25, 2016, and denied
review on April 27, 2016. (R. 1-5, 7-10). On that date, the
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner. Hutchins then filed this action for judicial
review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) & 1383(c)(3). (Doc.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
court's review of the Commissioner's decision is
narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to
determine whether the Commissioner's decision is
supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal
standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v.
Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The
court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported
by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).
Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a
scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.
court must uphold factual findings that are supported by
substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal
conclusions de novo because no presumption of
validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the
proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v.
Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the
court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law,
or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient
reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision.
See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46
(11th Cir. 1991).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
qualify for disability benefits and SSI under the Social
Security Act, a claimant must show the inability 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); 42 U.S.C.
§ 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is
“an impairment that results from anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are
demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3); 42
U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).
of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five
step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and
416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine
whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial
gainful activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable
physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment
that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration
requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in
light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make
an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual
functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.
Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App'x
521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)). “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 disabled.'”
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir.
1986). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot
return to prior work the burden shifts to the [Commissioner]
to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v.
Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation
omitted). The Commissioner must further show that such work
exists in the national economy in significant numbers.
Id.; Evans, 551 F. App'x at 524.
initially alleged disability based on type II diabetes
mellitus with neuropathy, a painful right knee, insomnia with
fatigue, high blood pressure, blurred vision at times in her
right eye, and irregular menstrual cycle with anemia. (R.
266). She was 37 years old on her amended onset date of
October 16, 2012. (R. 16, 116, 261). She has a high school
education and past relevant work as a cashier-checker and
cashier II. (R. 267, 324). Since her onset date, Hutchins has
received some unemployment compensation. She has also applied
for various jobs online. (R. 16-17, 221-22).
hearing before the ALJ, Hutchins testified that she was
unable to work because of difficulty standing for more than
thirty minutes due to problems with her feet; a three-year
history of difficulty gripping objects; and a one-year
history of dizziness and shortness of breath when bending and
stooping. (R. 18-21). The ALJ determined that Hutchins could
perform her past work as a cashier and, alternatively, could
perform work as a counter clerk, furniture rental clerk, and
dealer accounts investigator. (R. 79).
asserts two claims of error: (1) the ALJ acted improperly in
“rejecting the opinion[s]” of treating physician
Dr. Gary Walton and consultative examiner Dr. Walid W. Freji
and (2) the Appeals Council erred in failing to consider
evidence submitted to the ALJ and before it. (Doc. 9 at 2).
Consideration of Opinion Evidence
determining the weight to be given an acceptable medical
source such as a physician, an ALJ is to consider numerous
factors, including whether the physician examined the
individual, whether the physician treated the individual, the
evidence the physician presents to support his or her
opinion, whether the physician's opinion is consistent
with the record as a whole, and the physician's
specialty. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c),
416.927(c). A treating physician's opinion generally is
entitled to more weight, and an ALJ must give good reasons
for discounting a treating physician's opinion.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2),
416.927(c)(2); Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). This is particularly
true when the treatment “has been over a considerable
period of time.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d
129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). “However, the nature of the
relationship between the doctor and the claimant is only one
factor used to determine the weight given to a medical
opinion.” Chambers v. Astrue, No.
1:11-cv-02412-TWT-RGV, 2013 WL 486307, at *27 (N.D.Ga. Jan.
11, 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527). An ALJ may
discount a physician's opinion, including a treating
physician's opinion, when the opinion is conclusory, the
physician fails to provide objective medical evidence to
support his or her opinion, the opinion is inconsistent with
the record as a whole, or the evidence otherwise supports a
contrary finding. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(3), (c)(4), 416.927(c)(3), (c)(4); Crawford
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159-60 (11th
Cir. 2004); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232,
1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004).
Dr. Gary Walton
argues that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Walton's
opinion when she found that Dr. Walton had not treated
Hutchins between her June 25, 2013 office visit and the date
he completed her Medical Source Statement (MSS) forms on
November 4, 2013. (Doc. 9 at 2-5). The Commissioner responds
that the ALJ properly considered the ...