United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Stanley Dale Harper 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 him supplemental
security income (“SSI”) benefits. (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. 8). 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.
filed his current SSI application in March 2012, alleging he
became disabled beginning March 5, 2012. It was initially
denied by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).
The Appeals Council (“AC”) remanded the case for
a further hearing concerning Plaintiff's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) and the need for
additional rationale concerning the assessed limitations. The
AC also ordered the ALJ to obtain supplemental evidence from
a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed
limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base.
18, 35-36). A hearing was held on September 10, 2015
(id.) and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on
October 28, 2015, finding Plaintiff was not entitled to SSI
benefits. (R. 15, 18-27). The AC denied Plaintiff's
request for review. (R. 1).
was 48 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision that
is under review. (R. 36). He completed the second grade and
last worked as a truck driver in 2000 or 2001. Since then he
has been assisted by his family. Plaintiff alleges a
disability onset date of March 5, 2012. (R. 18).
his hearing, the ALJ, applying the five-step sequential
evaluation process, found that Plaintiff had the following
medically determinable impairments: Hepatitis B and C,
bipolar disorder, polysubstance abuse in remission,
personality disorder, panic disorder, lumbar degenerative
disc disease, and osteoarthritis. (R. 20). She 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. (Id.) She further found Plaintiff retained
the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work, with
various postural limitations and no exposure to hazards. (R.
22). The ALJ then found, based on testimony from a vocational
expert (“VE”), that Plaintiff could not perform
his past relevant work. He could, however, perform other
work, including work as a marker, a garment sorter, or a
surveillance system monitor, that existed in significant
numbers in the national economy. (R. 27). Accordingly, the
ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)
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); Mitchell v.
Comm'r Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2015;
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). The court must affirm the ALJ's
decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if other
evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's
findings. See Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v.
Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.1990)).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
qualify for benefits 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). 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).
of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five
step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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 F. App'x
521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014). The plaintiff bears the burden of
proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211
(11th Cir. 2005); see also 20 C.F.R. §
416.912(a). The applicable “regulations place a very
heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying
disability and an inability to perform past relevant
asserts that the ALJ erred in three ways: (1) she improperly
evaluated the opinion evidence of Dr. June Nichols; (2) she
improperly evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints of
disabling symptoms; and (3) she failed to find Plaintiff to
be illiterate. (Doc. 14 at 12-17). Each will be addressed
Dr. Nichols's Opinion
initially argues that the ALJ improperly found that Dr.
Nichols's opinion that Plaintiff's anxiety and panic
attacks would markedly interfere with his ability to
concentrate is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc.
14 at 12). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ correctly
assessed Dr. Nichols's opinion in evaluating
Plaintiff's RFC. (Doc. 17 at 5).
Nichols evaluated Plaintiff in August 2015. She found that
his stream of consciousness was clear; he was oriented to
person, place, time, and situation; he had poor mental
processing; he was able to perform simple addition and
subtraction using his fingers; his recent and remote memory
were “grossly intact”; his intermediate memory
was fair; his general fund of knowledge was adequate; his
thinking was “somewhat abstract” in nature; and
his thought processes were within normal limits. (R. 603-04).
Dr. Nichols estimated that Plaintiff was functioning in the
borderline range of intellectual ability. (R. 604). She
diagnosed Plaintiff with bipolar disorder, panic disorder,
polysubstance abuse in remission, alcohol abuse in remission,
and borderline intelligence. She stated that Plaintiff's
“symptoms cause[d] his ability to relate
interpersonally and to withstand the pressures of everyday
work to be compromised.” (R. 24, 605). She also stated
that “his deficits would interfere with his ability to
remember, understand, and carry out work-related
instructions.” (Id.) She further stated that
“anxiety and panic attacks would markedly interfere
with [his] concentration, persistence, and pace.”
(Id.) Finally, she concluded that Plaintiff is
unable to handle his own funds, but he can live independently
with family support. (Id.)
Assessing Dr. Nichols's opinions, the ALJ stated:
Similar to the claimant's physical impairments, the
undersigned does not question the existence of the
claimant's mental impairments. The claimant has valid
diagnoses of personality disorder, panic disorder, and
substance abuse issues that are in remission. As discussed
earlier in this decision, the claimant's symptoms are
well controlled on medications, and as long as he is
compliant with his medications, he has no complaints.... The
undersigned gives substantial weight to Dr. Nichols'
opinions regarding the claimant's impairments as they are
the most restrictive within the record. She opined that the
claimant's ability to relate interpersonally is
compromised and suggested that the claimant's ability to
interact appropriately with the public, with supervisors, and
with coworkers is moderately impaired. The undersigned has
accounted for this opinion within the current residual
functional capacity and has limited the claimant to only
occasional interaction with the public, with coworkers, and
with supervisors. Dr. Nichols further opined that the
claimant would have mild interference with his ability to
understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions.
Complex instructions would create moderate limitations for
the claimant. Therefore, the undersigned finds that the
claimant can understand, remember, and carry out short,
simple instructions. The claimant can concentrate for
two-hour long periods. He demonstrated his abilities to
concentrate while completing tasks and answering questions
during his evaluation. Dr. Nichols opined that the
claimant's anxiety and panic attacks would markedly
interfere with the claimant's ability to concentrate;
however, it has already been established that the
claimant's symptoms are well controlled when he is
compliant with his medications. Based on the entire
evaluation and on the available evidence, Dr. Nichols opined
that the claimant would be moderately limited in his ability
to respond appropriately to usual work situations and to
changes in a routine work setting. The undersigned agrees
with this finding as well and finds that changes in the
claimant's work environment should be introduced
gradually and should occur no more than occasionally....
(R. 25-26 (record citations omitted and italics added)). The
ALJ further stated, “As for the opinion evidence, as
stated earlier, substantial weight is given to the opinions
of Dr. Nichols as they are supported by the record and
because they are the most limiting.” (R. 26).
C.F.R. § 416.927 provides the SSA with guidelines for
evaluating opinion evidence. “The regulation provides
that the SSA will consider ‘the following factors in
deciding the weight [it] give[s] to any medical opinion':
examining relationship, treatment relationship,
supportability, consistency with the record as a whole,
specialization, and other factors, including the medical
professional's understanding of the SSA's disability
programs.” Snow v. Colvin, 8 F.Supp.3d 1345,
1353 (N.D. Ala. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)).
Section 416.927(c) further provides that “an ‘ALJ
may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence
supports a contrary conclusion' so long as the ALJ
‘state[s] with particularity the weight he gives to
different medical opinions and the reasons why.' ”
Snow, 8 F.Supp.3d at 1353 (quoting McCloud v.
Barnhart, 166 F. App'x. 410, 418 (11th Cir. 2006)
(citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th
Cir. 1987); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233,
1240 (11th Cir. 1983)).
noted above, the ALJ gave substantial weight to Dr.
Nichols's opinion concerning Plaintiff's mental
impairments. However, the ALJ gave little weight to her
opinion that Plaintiff's anxiety and panic attacks would
markedly interfere with his ability to concentrate. (R.
25-26). The court ...