United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Donna
Michelle Belton seeks judicial review of a final adverse
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The
Commissioner denied Ms. Belton's claims for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits and supplemental
security income. For the reasons stated below, the Court
affirms the Commissioner's decision.
Belton applied for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits and supplemental security income on May
26, 2015 and January 15, 2016, respectively. (Doc. 6-3, p.
27; Doc. 6-4, p. 2). Ms. Belton alleges that her disability
began February 18, 2015. (Doc. 6-6, p. 2). The Commissioner
initially denied Ms. Belton's claims for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits on August 27,
2015. (Doc. 6-5, p. 3). Ms. Belton requested a hearing before
an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id., p.
The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Ms. Belton's
applications on August 9, 2016. (Doc. 6-3, p. 24). On October
21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Belton's
request for review (Doc. 6-3, pp. 2-6), making the
Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for
this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) & 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. Ingram v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir.
2007) (citing 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. Belton has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since February 18, 2015. (Doc.
6-3, p. 29). The ALJ determined that Ms. Belton suffers from
the following severe impairments: hypertension,
hypothyroidism, obesity, degenerative disc disease with small
extrusion at ¶ 5-S1, adjustment disorder with mixed
anxiety and depressed mood, and IQ scores in the
intellectually disabled range. (Id.). The ALJ also
determined that Ms. Belton has non-severe impairments of
palpitations and arrhythmia. (Id., p. 31). Based on
a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms.
Belton 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. (Id.).
light of Ms. Belton's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms.
Belton's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined
that Ms. Belton has the RFC to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and
416.967(a) except there would be an environmental limitation
due to symptoms of dizziness and vertigo in that any such job
should not be performed from elevated platforms or
workstations, nor in close proximity to moving machine parts
which would be hazardous to an employee if she became dizzy
and fell into the same. Any such job should be simple and
routine in nature. Contact with the public should be casual.
Changes in the work setting should be infrequent and
introduced gradually and well explained. The job should not
require a specific production quota.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 35).
on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Belton is not able to
perform her past relevant work as a janitor, laborer,
certified nursing assistant (“CNA”), salad maker,
or steam table attendant. (Id., pp. 38-39). Relying
on the testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”),
the ALJ found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that Ms. Belton can perform, including
spotter and sorter. (Id., pp. 39-40). Accordingly,
the ALJ determined that Ms. Belton has not been under a
disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
(Id., p. 40).
Belton argues that she is entitled to relief from the
ALJ's decision because (1) the ALJ erred by giving little
weight to the opinion of Dr. John Goff, Ms. Belton's
consultative examining source, and significant weight to the
opinions of Dr. Jerry Hart, the DDS's consultative
examining source; (2) the ALJ erred by finding that Ms.
Belton is not disabled under Listing 12.05(C) for
intellectual disability; (3) the ALJ erred by finding Ms.
Belton's combination of impairments is not disabling; and
(4) the Appeals Council erred by denying review of the
ALJ's decision. (Doc. 11, p. 3). The Court considers
these arguments in turn.
The ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion
Belton contends that the ALJ erred by giving the opinions of
Dr. Jerry Hart, a consultative examining source, significant
weight while giving little weight to the opinions of Dr. John
Goff, another consultative examining source. (Doc. 11, p.
13). The Court disagrees.
must consider every medical opinion in the administrative
record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c),
416.927(c) (stating that “[r]egardless of its source,
we will evaluate every medical opinion we receive”).
Additionally, “‘the ALJ must state with
particularity the weight given to different medical opinions
and the reasons therefor.'” Gaskin v.
Comm'r Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 931 (11th Cir.
2013) (quoting Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179).
Otherwise, the Court “cannot determine whether
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.”
Denomme v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec., 518 Fed.Appx. 875,
877 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Winschel, 631 F.3d at
need not defer to the opinions of a one-time examining
source. Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1160 (holding that, in
general, the opinion of a one-time examining physician is
“not entitled to great weight”) (citing
McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir.
1987)); Eyre v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 586
Fed.Appx. 521, 523 (11th Cir. 2014) (“The ALJ owes no
deference to the opinion of a physician who conducted a
single examination . . . .”). Additionally,
“[t]he ALJ may reject the opinion of any physician when
the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.”
McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 Fed.Appx. 410, 418-19 (11th
Cir. 2006) (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d
1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Dr. Hart's Opinion
purposes of Ms. Belton's disability evaluation, Dr. Hart,
a clinical psychologist, examined Ms. Belton on August 7,
2015. (Doc. 6-9, p. 71). Dr. Hart reviewed some of Ms.
Belton's medical records, made behavioral observations,
and conducted a mental status exam. (Id., pp.
Hart observed that Ms. Belton was “alert, attentive,
and fully oriented” during the examination. (Doc. 6-9,
p. 71). However, Dr. Hart noted that Ms. Belton presented her
work history and medical information in a “confused
fashion.” (Id.). As the ALJ noted, Ms. Belton
reported to Dr. Hart that she could not work because of back
problems, knee problems, heart problems, and episodes in
which she would “blank out” for a minute. (Doc.
6-3, p. 30; compare Doc. 6-9, p. 71). Ms. Belton
also reported that she attended special education classes in
school and received a certificate rather than a diploma from
high school. (Doc. 6-9, p. 72). After high school, Ms. Belton
earned a “CNA diploma, ” but she did not get her
CNA certification “due to lack of money ...