United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
plaintiff, Charles Wilkerson, appeals from the decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
("Commissioner") denying his application for disability
and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Mr.
Wilkerson timely pursued and exhausted his administrative
remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for
review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the
undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
626(c). Accordingly, the court enters this Memorandum
Wilkerson was 50 years old at the time of the Administrative
Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and he has
an eighth-grade education. (Tr. at 178, 232). His past work
experiences include work as a truck driver, upholsterer,
forklift operator, and floor sander. (Tr. at 204-05). Mr.
Wilkerson claims that he became disabled on July 12, 2012,
due to degenerative disc disease, diabetes, and lower back
pain. (Tr. at 350).
evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of
eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R.
§§404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v.
Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first
step requires a determination of whether the claimant is
"doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 4l6.920(a)(4)(i). If he is,
the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops.
Id. If he is not, the Commissioner next considers
the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments
combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. l520(a)(4)(ii),
4l6.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must
meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be
found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon
the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v.
Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the
claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis
stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii),
4l6.92O(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step
three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's
impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404. l520(a)(4)(iii), 4l6.920(a)(4)(iii). If the
claimant's impairments fall within this category, he will
be found disabled without further consideration. Id.
If he does not, a determination of the claimant's
residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be made
and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional
capacity is an assessment based on all relevant evidence of a
claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his
impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).
fourth step requires a determination of whether the
claimant's impairments prevent him from returning to past
relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
4l6.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the
evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past
relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.
Id. Step five requires the court to consider the
claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age,
education, and past work experience, in order to determine if
he can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.
l520(a)(4)(v), 4l6.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other
work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden
of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can
perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met,
the claimant must prove his inability to perform those jobs
in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel,
190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr.
Wilkerson has not been under a disability within the meaning
of the Social Security Act from the July 12, 2012, date of
onset through the date of his decision on July 11, 2014. (Tr.
at 238). He determined that Mr. Wilkerson has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his
disability. (Tr. at 232). According to the ALJ, Mr.
Wilkerson's degenerative disc disease of the cervical
spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, chronic
headaches, and diabetes mellitus (Type II) may be considered
"severe" based on the requirements set forth in the
regulations. (Tr. at 232-34). The ALJ further determined that
Mr. Wilkerson has non-severe impairments of adjustment
disorder with anxiety and depression and degenerative joint
disease of the right knee. He found that none of the
impairments meet or medically equal any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
(Tr. at 234). In addition, the ALJ did not find Mr.
Wilkerson's allegations of pain and the limitations
caused by his impairments to be entirely credible. (Tr. at
235). He determined that the plaintiff has the residual
functional capacity to perform the full range of light work.
(Tr. at 234).
to the ALJ, Mr. Wilkerson is unable to perform any of his
past relevant work, he was a "younger individual"
at the date of alleged onset, he has a limited education, and
he is able to communicate in English. (Tr. at 236-37). The
ALJ determined that "transferability of skills is not
material to the determination of disability" in this
case. (Tr. at 237). The ALJ found that there are a
significant number of jobs in the national economy that Mr.
Wilkerson is capable of performing. (Tr. at 237). The ALJ
concluded his findings by stating that Mr. Wilkerson is
"not disabled" under the Social Security Act. (Tr.
Standard of Review
court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social
Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is
limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial
evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of
the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards
were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir 2002). The court approaches the factual
findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies
close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v.
Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court
may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. "The
substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision
makers to act with considerable latitude, and 'the
possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the
evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's
finding from being supported by substantial
evidence.'" Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177,
1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting
Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620
(1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence
preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the
Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial
evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is
automatic, however, for "despite this deferential
standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the
Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the
reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v.
Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover,
failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for
reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635
(11th Cir. 1984).
Wilkerson alleges that the ALJ's decision should be
reversed and remanded because, he asserts, of the following:
(1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of
treating physician Dr. Poczatek; (2) the ALJ failed to give
proper weight to the opinion of consulting physician Dr.
Estock; (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated the plaintiffs
credibility without retroactively employing Ruling 16-3p; (4)
the ALJ's finding that the claimant had the RFC to
perform light work was not based on substantial evidence; (5)
the ALJ failed to consider the claimant's
tremors/spasticity as a severe impairment; (6) the Appeals
Council improperly failed to review medical records submitted
after the ALJ's decision solely based on the date of the
records, without considering whether they were
chronologically relevant to the ALJ's determination; and
(7) the denial, when considering the evidence presented to
the Appeals Council, was not supported by substantial
evidence. (Doc. 14). The Commissioner has responded by
addressing these claims in five categories: (1) the Appeals
Council's review of the evidence; (2) the ALJ's
treatment of treating and consultative physician opinions;
(3) the ALJ's consideration of the plaintiffs subjective
complaints as not entirely credible; (4) the ALJ's
finding as to the plaintiffs RFC; and (5) the ALJ's
evaluation of the severity of plaintiffs tremors/spasticity.
(Doc. 15). The court addresses the claims in two broad
categories of the ALJ's decision and the Appeals
Council's findings, analyzing the plaintiffs more
specific allegations within the discussions of each category.
The ALJ's Determinations
Treating Physician and Medical Source Assessments
prevailing law, a treating physician's testimony is
entitled to "substantial or considerable weight unless
'good cause' is shown to the contrary."
Crawford v. Commissioner of Social Security, 363
F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotations
omitted). The weight to be afforded a medical opinion
regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's
impairments depends, among other things, upon the examining
and treating relationship the medical source had with the
claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to support
the opinion, how consistent the opinion is with the record as
a whole, and the specialty of the medical source.
See 20 C.RR. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d).
"Good cause" exists for an ALJ not to give a
treating physician's opinion substantial weight when the
"(1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered
by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding;
or (3) . . . was conclusory or inconsistent with the
doctor's own medical records." Phillips v.
Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1241 (11th Cir. 2004) citing
Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440; see also Edwards v.
Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583-84 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding
that "good cause" exists where the opinion was
contradicted by other notations in the physician's own
such as whether a claimant is disabled, the claimant's
residual functional capacity, and the application of
vocational factors "are not medical opinions, . . . but
are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the
Commissioner;" thus the court "may not decide facts
anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for
that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart,395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). The court instead looks
to the doctors' evaluations of the claimant's
condition and the medical consequences thereof, not their
opinions of the legal consequences of his [or her]
condition." Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440. See
also 20 C.F.R. § 404. l527(d)(1)("A statement
by a medical source that you are 'disabled' or
'unable to work' does not mean that we will determine
that you are disabled."). Such statements by a physician
are relevant to the ALJ's ...