United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff
Christy Culwell seeks judicial review of a final adverse
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The
Commissioner denied Ms. Culwell's claims for a period of
disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental
security income. For the reasons stated below, the Court
affirms the Commissioner's decision.
Culwell filed for a period of disability, disability
insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on
November 14, 2012. (Doc. 8-4, p. 2). Ms. Culwell alleges that
her disability began July 22, 2012. (Doc. 8-4, p. 2; Doc.
8-6, pp. 2, 6). The Commissioner initially denied Ms.
Culwell's claims on January 8, 2013. (Doc. 8-5, pp. 4-8).
Ms. Culwell requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 8-5, pp. 2-3). The ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision on November 13, 2014. (Doc. 8-4, pp.
32-49). On May 10, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Ms.
Culwell's request for review (Doc. 8-3, pp. 2-4), making
the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate
for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in
this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council
denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the
ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and
[his] ‘legal conclusions with close
scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013)
(quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir.
Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in
the record to support the ALJ's factual findings.
“Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is
such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may
not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence,
” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.
Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d
1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation
omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if
the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's
findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing
Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).
respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must
determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal
standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's
application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ
failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that
the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court
must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled,
an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe
impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the
impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified
impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment,
whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past
relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there
are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that
the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience.
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.
case, the ALJ found that Ms. Culwell has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since July 22, 2012, the alleged
onset date. (Doc. 8-4, p. 37). The ALJ determined that Ms.
Culwell suffers from the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc
herniation at ¶ 5, syringomyelia at ¶ 6,
fibromyalgia, depression/mood disorder, and anxiety/panic
disorder. (Doc. 8-4, p. 37). The ALJ found that Ms. Culwell
also has the following non-severe impairments: irritable
bowel syndrome; gastroesophageal reflux disease; and
osteoarthritis. (Doc. 8-4, p. 38). Based on a review of the
medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Culwell does not
have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets
or medically equals the severity of any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
(Doc. 8-4, p. 40).
light of Ms. Culwell's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms.
Culwell's residual functional capacity or RFC. The ALJ
determined that Ms. Culwell has the RFC to perform:
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except that she is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; cannot tolerate any exposure to hazardous, moving
machinery or unprotected heights; can occasionally climb
ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl;
requires a temperature-controlled work environment with no
more than occasional exposure to extreme cold or heat; is
limited to work that requires no more than the understanding,
remembering, and carrying out of simple instructions and has
the ability to sustain such activities for two hours at a
time over an eight-hour day with no more than the morning,
afternoon, and lunch-time breaks routinely allowed in the
workplace; and can tolerate frequent changes to the work
setting but only occasional interaction with the public,
co-workers, and supervisors.
(Doc. 8-4, p. 42).
on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Culwell is not able
to perform her past relevant work as a maintenance
supervisor. (Doc. 8-4, p. 48).
on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that
jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Culwell can
perform, including bakery worker, assembler, and marker.
(Doc. 8-4, pp. 48-49). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that
Ms. Culwell has not been under a disability within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 8-4, p. 49).
Culwell argues that she is entitled to relief from the
ALJ's decision because the ALJ failed to properly weigh
the opinion of treating physician Dr. John Keithan; the ALJ
failed to re-contact Quality of Life to confirm the name and
title of the examiner who conducted a psychiatric evaluation
of Ms. Culwell on November 18, 2013; and the ALJ did not
assess Ms. Culwell's subjective complaints of pain
consistent with Social Security Ruling 16-3p. (Doc. 13). In
addition, Ms. Culwell asks the Court to remand pursuant to
sentence six to require the ALJ to consider a psychological
evaluation that Dr. David Wilson completed on July 18, 2016.
(Doc. 12). The Court considers these arguments in turn.
Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Decision to Give
Dr. Keithan's Opinions Little Weight.
must give the opinion of a treating physician like Dr.
Keithan “substantial or considerable weight unless
‘good cause' is shown to the contrary.”
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir.
2004) (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. at 1240-41; see also
Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159 (noting a treating
physician's report may be discounted if it is wholly
conclusory or not supported by objective medical evidence).
“The ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for giving
less weight to a treating physician's opinion, and the
failure to do so constitutes error.” Gaskin v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 931 (11th
Cir. 2013) (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.2d 1436,
1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).
13, 2014, Dr. Keithan completed on Ms. Culwell's behalf a
physical capacities evaluation, a clinical assessment of pain
form, and an ability to work form. (Doc. 8-11, pp. 2-4). In
the physical capacities assessment, Dr. Keithan opined that
Ms. Culwell can sit, stand, and walk for a total of one hour
in an 8-hour work day. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Dr. Keithan opined
that Ms. Culwell occasionally can lift up to 25 pounds, and
she never can lift more than 25 pounds. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2).
According to Dr. Keithan, Ms. Culwell occasionally can carry
up to 10 pounds, and she never can carry more than 10 pounds.
(Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Ms. Culwell occasionally can use her hands
for simple grasping, pulling, and fine manipulation. (Doc.
8-11, p. 2). Ms. Culwell occasionally can use her right foot
and frequently can use her left foot for pushing and pulling
of leg controls. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Dr. Keithan concluded
that Ms. Culwell occasionally can stoop, crouch, kneel,
crawl, climb, balance, and reach overhead, and she
occasionally can work around unprotected heights, hazardous
machinery, marked changes in temperature, and exposure to
dust and fumes. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Ms. Culwell also
occasionally can drive auto equipment. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2).
According to Dr. Keithan, Ms. Culwell likely would miss more
than four days of work per month because of her impairments
or treatment. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2).
clinical assessment of pain form, Dr. Keithan circled
pre-marked answers on a questionnaire indicating that Ms.
Culwell's pain “is present to such an extent as to
be distracting to adequate performance of daily activities,
” and that physical activity will increase Ms.
Culwell's pain “to such an extent that bed rest
and/or medication is necessary.” (Doc. 8-11, p. 3). Dr.
Keithan also noted that side effects from Ms. Culwell's