United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge
Antionette Cooper 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 (“DIB”) and
supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc.
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. (See
Doc. 16). 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.
protectively filed her current DIB and SSI applications on
January 7, 2013, alleging she became disabled beginning
December 31, 2011. (R. 114-15, 221-24, 227-28). They were
initially denied. (R. 123, 131-45). An administrative law
judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on June 9, 2014 (R.
69-92) and issued an unfavorable decision on October 21, 2014
(R. 49-63). Plaintiff submitted additional evidence to the
Appeals Council (“AC”). Upon consideration of the
evidence, the Appeals Council found the information did not
provide a basis for changing the ALJ's decision. (R. 2,
5-6). Plaintiff's request for review was denied on May 9,
2016. (R. 1).
was 52 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. She
has a high school education and has worked in the past as a
janitor. (R. 46, 73, 90, 256). Plaintiff alleged onset of
disability on December 31, 2011, due to anxiety,
hypertension, thyroid problems, and an increased heart rate.
(R. 74-75, 255).
a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following
medically determinable impairments: anxiety, hypertension,
thyroid nodule, and gastroesophageal reflux disease
(“GERD”). (R. 51). He also found Plaintiff did
not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (R. 55).
He further found Plaintiff retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium, unskilled
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and
416.967(c) that did not require: (1) climbing ropes, ladders,
or scaffolds; (2) work at unprotected heights or with
hazardous machinery; (3) concentrated exposure to temperature
extremes; (4) more than frequent interaction with co-workers
and supervisors; and (5) more than occasional contact with
the public. (R. 57). Based on that RFC finding and testimony
from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ
concluded Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a
janitor as well as other work that existed in significant
numbers in the national economy such as a dishwasher, a hand
packager, and a store laborer. (R. 61-62, 90-91).
Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not under a
disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since
December 31, 2011, through the date of his decision. (R. 62).
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 DIB 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).
Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:
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 Fed.Appx. 521,
524 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)).
The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she was
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir.
2005). The applicable “regulations place a very heavy
burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying
disability and an inability to perform past relevant
argues four grounds of error: First, the AC failed to review
her new submissions “solely because
the records were dated after the date of [the ALJ's]
decision”; Second, the ALJ failed to order a
consultative evaluation; Third, the ALJ failed to state
adequate reasons for finding Plaintiff not credible; and
Fourth, the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff can perform her
past work. (Doc. 9 at 1 (bold in original)). Each argument
will be addressed below, beginning with the challenges to the
argues the ALJ did not give adequate reasons for finding that
her allegations of disabling symptoms were not entirely
substantiated by the record. (Doc. 9 at 20-23 (Issue 3)). She
also argues that the medical evidence clearly establishes her
disability. (Id. at 23). The Commissioner responds
that the ALJ correctly applied the Eleventh Circuit's
pain standard in evaluating Plaintiff's subjective
complaints and substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
finding that Plaintiff's subjective complaints were not
entirely substantiated. (Doc. 10 at 5-12).
noted in the previous section, Plaintiff bears the burden of
proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1512 (a) & (c), 416.912(a) &
(c) (2015); Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211; Doughty v.
Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001).
Specifically, Plaintiff has the burden to provide relevant
medical and other evidence she believes will prove her
alleged disability resulting from her physical or mental
impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1512(a)-(b), 416.912(a)-(b). In analyzing the evidence,
the focus is on how an impairment affects a claimant's
ability to work, and not on the impairment itself.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a);
McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1547 (11th Cir.
1986) (severity of impairments must be measured in terms of
their effect on the ability to work, not from purely medical
standards of bodily perfection or normality).
addressing a claimant's subjective description of pain
and symptoms, the law is clear:
In order to establish a disability based on testimony of pain
and other symptoms, the claimant must satisfy two parts of a
three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an underlying
medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical
evidence confirming the severity of the alleged pain; or (b)
that the objectively determined medical condition can
reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.
See Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir.
1991). If the ALJ discredits subjective testimony, he must
articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.
See Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir.
1987). Failure to articulate the reasons for discrediting
subjective testimony requires, as a matter of law, that the
testimony be accepted as true. See Cannon v. Bowen,
858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir.1988).
Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225; see also 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A), 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529,
evaluating a claimant's statements regarding the
intensity, persistence, or limiting effects of her symptoms,
the ALJ considers all the evidence - objective and
subjective. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529,
416.929. The ALJ may consider the nature of a claimant's
symptoms, the effectiveness of medication, a claimant's
method of treatment, a claimant's activities, measures a
claimant takes to relieve symptoms, and any conflicts between
a claimant's statements and the rest of the evidence.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), (4),
416.929(c)(3), (4). The ALJ is not required explicitly to
conduct a symptom analysis, but the reasons for his findings
must be clear enough that they are obvious to a reviewing
court. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1562 (11th
Cir. 1995). “A clearly articulated credibility finding
with substantial supporting evidence in the record will not
be disturbed by a reviewing court.” Id.
testified at her administrative hearing that she suffered
from anxiety attacks. The frequency of her attacks would
vary. On some days she would have two or three attacks. At
other times, she would have eight to ten attacks a week. (R.
75). She described the attacks as lasting up to “45
minutes or longer.” (R. 81). They manifested in her
running outside and taking off her clothes until she calmed
down. (R. 81-82). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's
“statements concerning the intensity, persistence and
limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not entirely credible
for the reasons explained in this decision.” (R. 58).
In reaching his decision, it is evident the ALJ properly
considered the entire medical record. (See R.
58-61). See also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1529(c)(2), 416.929(c)(2) (the ALJ can consider the
objective medical evidence among other factors when
evaluating subjective complaints); Social Security Ruling
(SSR) 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *1 (ALJ must consider the
objective medical record in assessing a claimant's
statements). He concluded that the medical record did
not fully support Plaintiff's allegations of frequent and
persistent anxiety/panic attacks. (R. 58, 75, 81-82). The
noted the following medical evidence. Plaintiff was seen at
Quality of Life Health Services, Inc. (“Quality of
Life”) in January and July 2012, and was negative for
anxiety or psychiatric symptoms. (R. 58, 394, 403). When
Plaintiff was seen at Gadsden Regional Medical Center in June
2012, she also was negative for any anxiety. (Tr. 58, 320).
Although Plaintiff was found to have anxiety in October 2012,
it was also noted that her anxiety was exacerbated by alcohol
use. (R. 58, 414). She was “noted to be drinking a
six-pack of beer per day and was encouraged to stop drinking