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Davenport v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division

October 19, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         Claimant, Dwight Davenport, commenced this action on February 9, 2017, 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 and disability insurance benefits.

         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 opinion of his treating physician, and improperly evaluated his credibility and complaints of subjective symptoms. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that these contentions lack merit, and the Commissioner's ruling is due to be affirmed.

         A. Treating Physician Opinion

         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. (alterations supplied). Additionally, 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 of 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).

         Social Security regulations also provide that, in considering what weight to give any medical opinion - regardless of whether it is from a treating or non-treating physician - 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 relevant factors. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(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.”).

         Dr. Leonides Santos, claimant's treating physician, submitted a “To Whom It May Concern” statement on January 20, 2014. Dr. Santos indicated that he was responding to an “attached questionnaire, ” but the court could not locate a copy of the questionnaire in the record. Dr. Santos stated that claimant suffers from chronic back pain as a result of degenerative disc disease, but that he cannot afford surgical treatment. Claimant also experiences neuropathy, venous insufficiency/stasis, cardiac stenting and heart disease, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. His prognosis “has worsened over the last 2 years and within the past 10 months has became [sic] a problem for everyday activities including standing, walking, lifting and any other normal types of functional capabilities.”[1] Claimant could not sit, stand or walk “for long periods of time.”[2] Specifically, claimant could not stand or walk for any longer than fifteen to twenty minutes out of any given hour, without his symptoms worsening. As a result of his worsening symptoms, claimant “could be out of or miss work 1-2 days a week resulting in 4-8 days a month at times.”[3] Dr. Santos opined that “it would be hard [for claimant] to work from the severity and constant pain, due to any type of activity including standing, walking and bending causing increased severe pain.”[4]

         The ALJ rejected Dr. Santos' statement that it would be hard for claimant to work because “the final responsibility for deciding the issue of disability is reserved to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration . . . .”[5] The ALJ also cited Social Security Ruling 96-2, which stated that “[c]ontrolling weight may not be given to a treating source's medical opinion unless the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, ” and that, “[e]ven if a treating source's medical opinion is well-supported, controlling weight may not be given to the opinion unless it also is ‘not inconsistent' with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” SSR 96-2, 1996 WL 374188, at *1 (alterations supplied).[6] Even so, the ALJ did not take the additional step of explaining whether she thought Dr. Santos' opinion was well-supported and consistent with the remainder of the medical record.

         Instead, even though she did not explicitly so state, the ALJ appears to have relied instead on the opinion of consultative physician Dr. Laura Lindsey, who examined claimant on September 5, 2013. Dr. Lindsey noted that claimant complained of back and neck pain that had significantly worsened after a motor vehicle accident in 2010, and that was aggravated by activities like sitting or walking. During the clinical examination, claimant verbalized pain to palpation of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbosacral spine and surrounding muscles. He also verbalized pain with any movement and was not fully cooperative with the range of motion assessment. Claimant had full motor strength in his upper and lower extremities, intact sensation, and normal reflexes. He presented no tremors and could ambulate independently with and without assistive devices. His gait appeared normal and coordinated. He could get in and out of chairs and on and off of the examination table without assistance or difficulty. He could walk heel-to-toe and squat without difficulty. Dr. Lindsey assessed claimant with chronic back and neck pain, myocardial infarction, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, emotional issues, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Based upon the examination, Dr. Lindsey concluded that claimant could independently sit, stand, walk, hear, speak, carry, lift, travel and handle objects. She observed that, even though claimant was taking multiple medications for his conditions, he appeared to be minimally limited by those conditions.[7]

         The ALJ did not specify the weight she afforded Dr. Lindsey's consultative assessment, but she appears to have credited it over the assessment of claimant's treating physician, Dr. Santos, because she found claimant to be capable of performing a limited range of sedentary work. She specifically noted that Dr. Lindsey's residual functional capacity finding was designed to “give the claimant the benefit of restrictions from his back, heart, and respiratory conditions as well as mental impairment.”[8] The ALJ also noted that, despite claimant's allegations of disabling functional limitations, Dr. Lindsey opined that claimant was only minimally limited by his medical conditions.[9]

         Claimant asserts that the ALJ should have given Dr. Santos' opinion more weight than Dr. Lindsey's opinion, because Dr. Santos was a treating physician. But it is well-established that an ALJ is not required to accept a treating physician's opinion when it is inconsistent with the doctor's own records or with other evidence in the administrative record. See, e.g., Phillips, supra. Claimant criticizes the ALJ's decision to rely upon Dr. Lindsey's assessment because the assessment “lacks specificity and fails to even set forth how long or in what capacity” claimant is able to engage in activities like sitting, standing, walking, hearing, speaking, carrying, lifting, traveling, and handling objects.[10] It is true that Dr. Lindsey did not provide an explicit assessment of how long claimant could perform each of those activities during a work day. More detail would have been beneficial, but Dr. Lindsey did state that claimant's limitations were minimal, and minimal impairments would not support a finding of disability.

         Moreover, Dr. Lindsey's assessment was supported by other evidence in the record. Dr. Jerry Williams, claimant's cardiologist, stated in three treatment notes recorded on February 21 and December 12 in 2012, and June 27 in 2013, that claimant reported no active pain. He could perform self-care activities and ambulate unassisted; he experienced no mobility limitations; and he demonstrated a normal range of motion. Claimant denied experiencing numbness, weakness, walking problems, muscle aches, and muscle weakness.[11]

         Finally, claimant asserts that Dr. Santos' long history of treating claimant for a variety of conditions, including pain, weakness, numbness, anxiety, and depression, and his prescription of a variety of medications to treat those conditions, should have caused the ALJ to credit his assessment of disabling symptoms. But neither the mere existence of impairments, nor the medication that is prescribed to treat those impairments, is sufficient to establish disability. Instead, the relevant consideration is the effect of claimant's impairment, or combination of impairments, on his ability to perform substantial gainful work activities. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a) (defining a disability as “the inability to do 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”). See also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987) (“The [Social Security] Act ‘defines “disability” in terms of the effect a physical or mental impairment has on a person's ability to function in the workplace.'”) (quoting Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 459-60 (1983)). There is no evidence that Dr. Santos assessed any disabling functional limitations.

         B. Subjective ...

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