United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Tiffany Sontrica Moten 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 her 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 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 her application for SSI benefits in April 2014,
alleging she became disabled beginning August 17, 2013. A
hearing was conducted on June 17, 2014. Plaintiff requested
at the hearing that her onset date be amended to her filing
date of April 7, 2014. Her application was initially denied
by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The
Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's
request for review. (R. 1).
was 33 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R.
23). She has not had substantial gainful activity at any
time. (R. 21, 29, 47, 156, 160). She alleges disability due
to her back condition from a car wreck, osteoarthritis,
degnerative joint disease in her knees and legs, bursitis in
her knees and legs, and depression. (R. 159).
Plaintiff's hearing, the ALJ found that she had the
medically determinable severe impairments of obesity,
osteoarthritis, enthesopathy of the knees, a history of pes
bursitis, and heel spurs. (R. 21). He also found that
Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or equaled the severity of a listed
impairment. (R. 22). He further found that Plaintiff had the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
sedentary work with limitations. (R. 22-28). He
determined that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 29).
He further found that based on Plaintiff's age,
education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of a
vocational expert (“VE”), Plaintiff could work as
an charge account clerk, toy stuffer, and button reclaimer.
(R. 29-30). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled. (R. 30).
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
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
qualify for benefits, a claimant must show her 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).
of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five
step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). 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 Fed.Appx. 521,
524 (11th Cir. 2014). The plaintiff bears the burden of proving
that she 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. §
416.920(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 that he failed to (1) properly
assess the medical opinion of her treating physician, Dr.
Dolores Victoria; (2) properly consider her obesity pursuant
to Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 02-01; and (3)
determine that she met Listing 1.02A-major joint dysfunction.
(Doc. 10 at 2). The Commissioner responds that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's determinations and Plaintiff
has failed to meet her burden of proving her impairments met
or equaled Listing 1.02A. (Doc. 11 at 4-19).
Dr. Victoria's Medical Opinion
noted above, Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she
is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a); Moore, 405
F.3d at 1211; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278
(11th Cir. 2001). Specifically, Plaintiff must provide
evidence of an underlying medical condition and objective
medical evidence confirming either the severity of the
alleged symptoms or that the medical condition could be
reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged symptoms.
See 20 C.F.R. § 419.929(a); Dyer v.
Barnhart, 359 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005);
Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225-26; Edwards v.
Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 (11th Cir. 1991). In
analyzing the evidence, the focus is on how an impairment
affects Plaintiff's ability to work, and not on the
impairment itself. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.929(c)(1); McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544,
1547 (11th Cir. 1986) (“severity of [impairments] must
be measured in terms of [their] effect upon the ability to
work ... not from purely medical standards of bodily
perfection or normality”).
assessing the weight to afford a doctor's opinion, an ALJ
may consider numerous factors, including whether the doctor
treated or examined the claimant, the evidence presented to
support her opinion, whether the doctor's opinion is
consistent with the record as a whole, and the doctor's
specialty. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). A
treating doctor's opinion generally is entitled to more
weight, and an ALJ must show “good cause” for
discounting a treating doctor's opinion. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.927(c)(2); see also Phillips v. Barnhart,
357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2003); Mace v.
Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin, 605 Fed.Appx. 837,
841 (11th Cir. 2015). However, an ALJ has discretion to give
a treating physician's opinion less than controlling
weight if the medical evidence does not support it or it is
inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the case
record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2)-(4); SSR
96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *2; see also Mace, 605
Fed.Appx. at 641. Opinions on some issues, however, such as
whether Plaintiff is unable to work, are not medical
opinions, “but are, instead, opinions on issues
reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative
findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that
would direct the determination or decision of
disability.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d); see Bell
v. Bowen, 796 F.2d 1350, 1353-54 (11th Cir. 1986);
Lee v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 551 Fed.Appx.
539, 542 (11th Cir. 2014). Opinions on issues reserved to the
Commissioner, even when offered by a treating physician, are
not entitled to controlling weight or special significance.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(3).
initially argues that the ALJ failed to accord proper weight
to Dr. Victoria's opinion as a treating physician and the
ALJ failed to show good cause for affording her opinion only
partial weight. The record demonstrates that Dr. Victoria is
a treating physician with Quality of Life Health Services
(“Quality of Life”). She has been treating
Plaintiff since March 2010 for various issues, including low
back pain, morbid obesity, knee pain, and hypertension. (R.
506-07, 626). In December 2013, Plaintiff reported hurting
her left knee when she fell down stairs in June 2013. (R.
427). She also reported that she had been to the emergency
room several times. X-rays were taken and showed inflammation
of the left knee. Dr. Victoria treated the injury with
ibuprofen and Mobic, but that did not provide Plaintiff with
any relief. (Id.) She complained of swelling and
difficulty walking. (Id.) Her physical examination
showed left knee swelling, a reduced range of motion, and
tenderness. (R. 429).
had an MRI performed on her knees on January 22, 2014. The
MRI showed “underlying degnerative changes in both
knees, slightly more prominent on the left with minor
marginal osteophytic spurring and tibial plateau
sclerosis.” (R. 444). There was “[n]o distinct
additional acute bony or soft tissue pathology ...
was also examined initially by Dr. Daniel R. Sparks on
February 12, 2014, due to complaints of left knee pain. She
reported that her pain began in February 2013, when she fell
off her porch. (R. 460). Dr. Sparks's examination
determined that there was no swelling, bruising, or effusion.
Plaintiff had normal range of motion and no instability.
(Id.) X-rays showed mild arthritis and “varus
with mild narrowing and small osteophytes.”
(Id.) He administered an injection of Celestone and
Marcaine. (R. 461). Plaintiff was diagnosed with
“arthritis- [degnerative joint disease] of the
knee.” (Id.) She was seen by Dr. Sparks one
week later. She complained that the injection did not relieve
her pain, but made her “knee numb.” (R. 459). Dr.
Sparks recommended Lodine and physical therapy. (R. 308,
459). He also recommended that she have an apartment on the
ground floor for easy accessibility. (R. 376).
attended physical therapy on February 26, 2014. During her
initial session, Plaintiff ambulated without assistance and
exhibited a limp. (R. 310). She reported pain at a level of
8/10. Her left lower extremity strength was
“3” and her right strength was
“4/5.” (R. 310-11). She asked the therapist if a
cane would help. She was told that a rolling walker would be
better because it would redistribute her weight to her hands.
(R. 310, 317). She was also told that weight loss was
important in decreasing her knee pain. (R. 311, 318). She
participated in physical therapy on February 27. She reported
a pain level of 7/10. (R. 321). Due to the death of her
mother, her next therapy session was not until March 24. She
reported a pain level of 6/10 during that session. (R. 323).
She also stated that she intended to ask Dr. Sparks for a
prescription for a cane. (Id.)
Sparks saw Plaintiff on March 25, 2014. He wrote her a
prescription for a cane. (R. 377). Plaintiff returned to Dr.
Sparks on April 2, 2014, complaining that she fell at the
previous appointment and hurt her left knee. Dr. Sparks's
examination of Plaintiff revealed no swelling, bruising, or
instability. (R. 458). He also noted a normal range of motion
in her left knee. (Id.) He diagnosed ...