United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
28, 2014, the claimant, Lutisha Irene Bush, applied for
Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the
Social Security Act. The claimant alleged disability
commencing on May 30, 2011, because of asthma, manic
depression, tachycardia, post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), panic attacks, and a back injury. The Commissioner
denied the claim on August 14, 2014, and the claimant filed a
timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ) on October 3, 2014. The ALJ held a video hearing
on May 16, 2016. (R. 43, 148-53, 188).
decision dated August 23, 2016, the ALJ held that the
claimant was not disabled, as defined by the Social Security
Act, and was, therefore, ineligible for Social Security
benefits. On June 29, 2017, the Appeals Council declined to
grant review of the ALJ's decision, and the claimant has
now appealed her decision to this court, which has
jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3). (R. 40). For the reasons stated below, this court
AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.
claimant presents the following issues for review:
1. whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of
examining psychological consultant Dr. Hampton;
2. whether substantial evidence supports the claimant's
testimony regarding her symptoms;
3. whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
residual functional capacity finding that the claimant could
perform light work;
4. whether the ALJ properly did not apply Grid Rule 201.14,
and properly relied on vocational expert testimony to support
her finding that the claimant can perform light work; and
5. whether the ALJ drew proper inferences from the
claimant's lack of medical treatment.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is
limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if she
applied the correct legal standards, and if substantial
evidence supports her factual conclusions. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d
1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826
F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).
of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal
conclusions, including determination of the proper standards
to be applied in evaluating claims.” Walker,
826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the
Commissioner's factual determinations de novo.
The court will affirm those factual determinations that are
supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial
evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It
means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).
court must keep in mind that opinions, such as whether a
claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a
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 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. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the
claimant meets the listing and is qualified for Social
Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the
ALJ, and 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). Thus, even if the court were to
disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain
facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long
as substantial evidence in the record supports it.
court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to
determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s
factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A
reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the
record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must
view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence
that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ.
Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir.
must consider all medical opinions, but she is not required
to give special deference to an opinion from a single
consultation. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440
(11th Cir. 1997). However, refusal by the ALJ to accord
proper weight to the opinion of a consultative examining
physician is cause for reversal. Henry v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1268 (11th Cir. 2015).
evaluating pain and other subjective complaints, the
Commissioner must consider whether the claimant demonstrated
an underlying medical condition, and either (1)
objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the
alleged pain arising from that condition or (2) that
the objectively determined medical condition is of such a
severity that it can reasonably be expected to give rise to
the alleged pain. Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221,
1223 (11th Cir. 1991). After the claimant has established an
underlying medical condition, her disability determination
must be based on evidence of the intensity, persistence, and
functionally limiting effects of her pain or other symptoms,
and the medical record. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d
1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). If the claimant testifies as to
her subjective complaints of severe pain and other symptoms,
the ALJ must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for
discrediting the claimant's allegations of completely
disabling symptoms. Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210.
making a disability determination, the ALJ is required to
evaluate the claimant's residual functional capacity,
which is an assessment based on all relevant evidence of the
claimant's ability to work, despite her impairments.
See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th
Cir. 1997). The ALJ makes a proper residual functional
capacity determination if she adequately considers the
claimant's ability to “meet the physical, mental,
sensory, and other requirements of work.” 20 C.F.R.
findings of fact correspond with one of the grid rules, as
set out in Appendix 2 of 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, the
Commissioner must find the claimant “disabled” or
“not disabled” based upon a grid rule.
See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2, §
200.00; 20 C.F.R. § 416.969. However, if the claimant
has exertional and non-exertional limitations, the
Commissioner should use the grids as merely a framework in
the decision-making process. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.969a(d). When the claimant's RFC does not exactly
correspond with one of the grid rules, the ALJ may obtain the
assistance of a vocational expert to determine any jobs the
claimant could perform. See Wolfe v. Chater, 86 F.3d
1072, 1077-78 (11th Cir. 1996). “The ALJ must pose a
hypothetical question which comprises all of the
claimant's impairments.” Williams v.
Barnhart, 140 F. App'x, 932, 936 (11th Cir. 2005).
The ALJ commits harmless error if she omits a factor from the
hypothetical that would not change the testimony of the
vocational expert. Id.
by a claimant to follow prescribed medical treatment without
good cause will preclude a finding of disability. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1530(b). But Poverty may excuse failure to follow
prescribed medical treatment. Ellison v. Barnhart,
355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003). If the ALJ relies
solely on a claimant's noncompliance as grounds
to deny disability benefits, and the record indicates that
the claimant could not afford prescribed medical treatment,
the ALJ must make a determination regarding the
claimant's ability to afford treatment. However, if the
ALJ does not substantially or solely base her finding of
nondisability on the claimant's noncompliance, she does
not commit a reversible error by failing to consider the
claimant's financial situation. Id.
claimant was fifty-two years old at the time of the ALJ's
decision; obtained a GED and completed a certified nursing
assistant (CNA) program; has past work experience as a CNA
and a bonding agent; and alleges disability based on asthma,
manic depression, tachycardia, PTSD, panic attacks, and a
back injury. (R. 51, 62, 148, 179, 188-89).
and Mental Impairments
record includes extensive medical details regarding the
claimant's back pain and migraines between 1991 and 1996.
Although migraines were not listed on the claimant's
social security benefits application, migraine-related
complaints comprised the majority of the claimant's
medical record until 2005. The claimant visited Dr. Kenneth
Pilgreen and Dr. James White more than thirty times regarding
migraines and back pain during this time. Dr. Pilgreen
diagnosed the claimant with a common migraine with tension
components in June of 1991, and he proscribed Corgard,
Amitriptyline, and Midrin. The amount and type of medication
that the claimant took, and the frequency of her migraines,
fluctuated through the years. Dr. White also wrote the
claimant's prescription for Midrin; gave the claimant a
shot of Imitrex for her migraine headaches in 1993; and also
conducted x-rays and CT scans at Gadsden Regional Medical
Center of the claimant's lumbar spine that showed
desiccation of the L5 intervertebral disc, early interspace
narrowing, and mild bulging at ¶ 5. (R. 273-334).
record indicates that the claimant visited Dr. Lisa Oestreich
of Northeast Alabama Neurological Services once in 1999
complaining of migraines; and she visited Etowah Free
Community Clinic once in 2002 and again in 2005 complaining
of migraines. The record included no medical entries between
2005 and 2010, and the ALJ did not ...