United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
January brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), seeking review of the final adverse decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration regarding
her claim for Supplemental Security Income and Disability
Insurance Benefits. On February 8, 2018, the Magistrate Judge
entered a report and recommendation affirming the
Commissioner's decision denying benefits, doc. 13, and
Ms. January filed her amended objections to the Magistrate
Judge's report on March 5, 2018. Doc. 18. In a nutshell,
Ms. January argues that the Commissioner failed to
meaningfully evaluate all the findings of a consultative
physician, failed to include in Ms. January's RFC an
additional impairment identified by the consultative
physician, and failed to adequately develop the record
regarding the potential side effects caused by Ms.
January's medications. Id. at 1, 6. The court
will address each objection in turn.
Objection 1-Whether the ALJ Failed to Adequately Evaluate the
Opinion of Consultative Examiner Dr. Randall Griffith and to
Incorporate that Opinion into Ms. January's RFC
January's first objection raises two intertwined
arguments. First, Ms. January contends that the ALJ did not
adequately explain the weight he afforded Dr. Randall
Griffith's findings. Specifically, she argues that the
ALJ's RFC does not fully reflect the scope of the
non-exertional limitations identified by Dr. Griffith.
Second, Ms. January points out that the ALJ never addressed
Dr. Griffith's mention of Ms. January's diminished
“bilateral manual dexterity” as a basis for
disability or as an additional limitation in her RFC.
dealing with medical opinions, “the ALJ must state with
particularity the weight given to different medical opinions
and the reasons therefor.” Winschel v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011).
Absent good cause, the ALJ must give substantial or
considerable weight to a treating physician's opinion.
Id. In contrast, the ALJ need not defer to one-time,
consultative examiners, like Dr. Griffith, who do not qualify
as treating physicians. McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d
617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987). Critically, the RFC determination
is reserved to the ALJ and she may freely “reject the
opinion of any physician if the evidence supports a contrary
conclusion.” Beegle v. Soc. Sec. Admin.,
Comm'r, 482 F. App'x 483, 486 (11th Cir. 2012)
(citing Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th
Cir. 1985)). Moreover, when establishing the RFC,
“there is no rigid requirement that the ALJ
specifically refer to every piece of evidence in [her]
decision, so long as the ALJ's decision . . . is not a
broad rejection which is ‘not enough to enable . . .
[the court] to conclude that [the ALJ] considered [the
claimant's] medical condition as a whole.'”
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 121 (11th Cir.
2005) (quoting Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561
(11th Cir. 1995)).
core of Ms. January's argument is that the ALJ apparently
accepted Dr. Griffith's findings, according them
“good weight, ” without including those findings
in the RFC. In other words, Ms. January claims that the RFC,
as determined by the ALJ, is less restrictive than Dr.
Griffith's findings suggest, and that the RFC fails to
encompass Dr. Griffith's additional finding regarding Ms.
January's “impaired bilateral dexterity.”
This argument is misplaced. As the Magistrate Judge
explained, the ALJ need not defer to the conclusions of a
non-treating physician, and is, in any case, free to
“reject the opinion of any physician if the evidence
supports a contrary conclusion.” Beegle, 482
F. App'x at 486. In other words, so long as the record
supports the ALJ's decision and the ALJ proffers a
reviewable explanation for his treatment of a physician's
opinion, the ALJ may freely reject the medical opinion of a
non-treating physician. Here, the ALJ adequately identifies
the weight given to Dr. Griffith's opinion and the
rationale supporting the assigned weight by specifically
laying out Dr. Griffith's medical conclusions, including
his opinion that Ms. January has a “marked limitation
in her ability to respond appropriately to usual work
situations and changes in a routine work setting . . . [and]
that she has no to moderate limitations in her other areas of
mental functioning.” Doc. 6-3 at 30. The ALJ then
explained that these non-exertional impairments are
adequately reflected in Ms. January's RFC and supported
by the record evidence, and, accordingly, specified that he
gave Dr. Griffith's opinion “good weight.”
January is correct that the ALJ did not refer to Dr.
Griffith's finding that she suffered from “impaired
bilateral dexterity.” However, “there is no rigid
requirement that the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of
evidence in his decision, ” so long as the court is
able to determine that the ALJ's decision is based on the
claimant's medical condition as a whole. Dyer,
395 F.3d at 1211. In his ruling, the ALJ discussed in detail
all of Ms. January's medical history, including Dr.
Griffith's findings. Doc. 6-3 at 24-31. Notably, as
pointed out by the Magistrate Judge, there is no indication
of impaired fine motor skills in Ms. January's medical
records, she never complained about fine motor difficulties
to her treating physicians, and, most significantly, neither
Ms. January, her representative, or her mother suggested that
impaired fine motor skills constituted a potential basis for
Ms. January's claimed disability. Doc. 13 at 7-9,
In light of the overwhelming evidence in the record
indicating that Ms. January's motor skills were
unimpaired, id.; doc. 6-3 at 25-28, the court
concludes that substantial evidence, defined as “such
relevant evidence as reasonable minds might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion, ” McCloud v.
Barnhart, 166 F. App'x 410, 415 (11th Cir. 2006),
supports the ALJ's decision to reject this limitation.
Moreover, a review of the ALJ's decision in this case
reveals that the ALJ comprehensively reviewed and discussed
Ms. January's medical history, doc. 6-3 at 24-31, and
adequately evaluated Ms. January's condition as a whole,
thereby providing sufficient justification for his treatment
of Dr. Griffith's medical opinions.
the ALJ alone bears the responsibility for making the RFC
determination and she may “reject the opinion of any
physician if the evidence supports a contrary
conclusion.” Beegle, 482 F. App'x at 483.
In this regard, the Commissioner's “factual
findings are conclusive if supported by ‘substantial
evidence.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d
1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). The district
court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence,
or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner;
instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and
determine if the decision is “‘reasonable and
supported by substantial evidence.'” Id.
(quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239
(11th Cir. 1983)).
Ms. January may quibble with the ALJ's RFC determination,
and believe that the non-exertional limitations identified by
Dr. Griffith's report supports a more restrictive RFC
finding, this court is precluded from
“‘re-weigh[ing] the evidence or substitut[ing]
[its] judgment for that [of the Commissioner] . . . even if
the evidence preponderates against' the decision.”
Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1213 (11th Cir.
2005) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). As
extensively summarized by the Magistrate Judge, substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's overall RFC determination
with regard to Ms. January's articulated non-exertional
basis for disability. See Doc. 13 at 12-13,
15-16. Indeed, Dr. Griffith's findings alone
support this determination as he found, among other things,
that despite Ms. January's moderate cognitive
impairments, she retained the ability to function
independently, she had no difficulty in terms of following
simple instructions and making ordinary work decisions, that
her every-day problem solving skills were normal, and that
she retained the ability to perform even complex tasks with
direct assistance. Doc. 6-10 at 440, 447. In response to
those finding, Ms. January's RFC limited her to, among
other things, performing simple tasks with only casual
interactions with the public and co-workers. Doc. 6-3 at 24.
While the RFC may not perfectly reflect Ms. January's
mild to moderate cognitive limitations, a reasonable decision
based on substantial evidence is all that is required, and
the ALJ has met that requirement here.
Objection 2-Whether the ALJ Failed to Adequately Develop the
Record with Respect to Possible Medication Side Effects
January's second objection, that the ALJ erred by failing
to develop the record regarding potential side effects caused
by her medication, is also without merit. Ms. January is
correct that “the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a
full and fair record.” Ellison v. Barnhart,
355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (quotation omitted).
However, there is no error here for two reasons. First, this
basic obligation ripens into a special duty only when dealing
with “‘an unrepresented claimant.'”
Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir.
1981) (quoting Clark v. Schweiker, 652 F.2d 399, 404
(5th Cir. 1981)). Ms. January was represented at her hearing
before the ALJ and no heightened obligation to fully develop
the record existed because she does not specifically
challenge the adequacy or qualifications of her
representative. See Ellison, 355 F.3d at 1276-77
(explaining that a represented plaintiff needs to challenge
the adequacy of his representation to justify relief based on
an ALJ's failure to fully develop the record).
as the Magistrate Judge explained, the ALJ is only required
to elicit testimony and make findings regarding the side
effects of prescribed medication if there is some basis in
the record for concluding that the side effects present a
possible basis for the disability claim. See Passopulos
v. Sullivan, 976 F.2d 642, 648 (11th Cir. 1992)
(explaining that because there was no evidence that
medication “caused side effects for . . .
consideration” the “ALJ's failure to elicit
testimony and make findings on” that issue was not
error); Cherry v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 1186, 1191 n.7
(11th Cir. 1985) (noting that while an ALJ may have a duty to
investigate possible side effects the duty does not apply to
a represented claimant who “did not allege that side
effects of drugs contributed to her disability”);
see also Burgin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 420 F.
App'x 901, 904 (11th Cir. 2011) (explaining that
“[b]ecause [the plaintiff] was represented by counsel .
. . the ALJ was not required to inquire in detail about [the]
alleged side effects”); Walker v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 404 F. App'x 362, 367 (11th Cir. 2010)
(finding no duty to create a record with respect to medical
side effects when the record was devoid of any evidence that
the claimant's “symptoms actually were caused by
aptly summarized by the Magistrate Judge, the record in this
case provides no indication that Ms. January ever suffered
significant side effects from her medication. Neither Ms.
January nor her representative indicated to the ALJ that
medical side effects contributed to Ms. January's
disability claim, nor did they suggest that Ms. January had
experienced side effects due to her prescribed medications in
the first instance. Moreover, the Magistrate Judge found that
Ms. January denied experiencing side effects in the documents
she submitted to the Commissioner and her medical records
fail to provide any indication that she ever experienced
disabling side effects from her medical treatment, doc. 13 at
18, and she does not contest that conclusion here. Instead,
Ms. January's argument is effectively that her medication
could have created side effects that might have affected her
ability to work. This argument is entirely hypothetical and
is unsupported by the evidence in the record. If Ms. January
had, in fact, experienced side effects from her medication,
she should have presented the requisite evidence in support
of that contention to the ALJ. After all, “the
ALJ's obligation to develop the record does not relieve
the claimant of the burden of proving she is disabled.”
Walker v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 404 F. App'x
362, 367 (11th Cir. 2010). In other words, Ms. January is
responsible for producing evidence in support of her claim.
Id. She has failed to do so here, and the ALJ was
under no obligation to develop the record and make specific
findings with respect to a purely hypothetical basis for
end, the ALJ need not make a perfect decision, only a
reasoned one based on substantial evidence. See,
e.g., Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1226
(11th Cir. 2002) (concluding that because “the ALJ made
a reasonable decision . . . based on substantial
evidence” the district court erred in reversing that
decision). This court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's
conclusion that the Commissioner has carried that burden
here. Therefore, after careful consideration of the record in
this case, the magistrate judge's report and
recommendation, and Ms. January's objections to that
report and recommendation, the court hereby
ADOPTS the report of the Magistrate Judge.
The court further A ...