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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

March 11, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         Claimant, Stormy Williams, commenced this action on June 18, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and thereby denying her claim for supplemental security income benefits.

         The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).

         Claimant contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts that: (1) she met the requirements of Listings 12.04, 12.05, and 12.06; (2) the ALJ improperly considered the medical opinions in the record; and (3) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding was not supported by substantial evidence. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that these contentions are without merit, and the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. LISTINGS

         Claimant asserts that she meets the requirements of Listing 12.04, governing depressive, bipolar, and related disorders; Listing 12.05, governing intellectual disorders; and Listing 12.06, governing anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Each of those Listings requires proof of extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning:

a. Understand, remember, or apply information (see 12.00E1); or
b. Interact with others (see 12.00E2); or
c. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace (see 12.00E3); or
d. Adapt or manage oneself (see 12.00E4); and

20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, §§ 12.04B, 12.05B.2, 12.06B.

         The ALJ found no more than moderate limitations in any of those functional areas, saying that:

In understanding, remembering, or applying information, the claimant has mild limitation. In interacting with others, the claimant has moderate limitation. With regard to concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, the claimant has moderate limitation[s]. As for adapting or managing oneself, the claimant has no limitation. The claimant cares for her four children. She gets them up and ready for school. She bathes and feeds her children. She cares for the younger ones not in school. She has a boyfriend with whom she spends time. She is independent with daily activities and personal care. She cleans and does laundry. She prepares meals for her[self] and her children. She cleans and does laundry. She drives and shops. She watches television with no problems. She is social with family. She alleged concentration and memory problems, yet she is able to run a household, watch television with no problems, and follow spoken instructions. In addition, she was able to testify at the hearing with no memory problems.

Tr. 15 (alterations supplied). See also Id. (“[T]here is no evidence whatsoever of significant deficits in adaptive functioning manifested by extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two areas of mental functioning.”) (alteration supplied).

         Claimant points to the following evidence to contest the ALJ's findings: (1) consultative examiner Dr. David Wilson's statements that claimant's “ability to withstand the pressures of day to day occupational functioning is highly impaired, ” and she “is not capable of managing benefits”;[1] (2) claimant's hearing testimony that she had to take the driver's license examination multiple times, and that she couldn't sit still, pay attention, or comprehend things in school;[2] (3) the diagnoses of anxiety disorder in claimant's medical record;[3] (4) consultative examiner Dr. Jack Bentley's assessment;[4] and (5) claimant's testimony of weekly panic attacks.[5]

         The ALJ did not fully credit the consultative examiners' opinions, and her decision not to do so will be discussed in the following section. Claimant's panic attacks would have been relevant to the “A” requirements of Listing 12.06, [6] but they are not relevant to the “B” requirements. Finally, a diagnosis of anxiety disorder, subjective testimony about some unspecified trouble paying attention in school, and failing a driver's license examination do not equate to marked or extreme limitations in the functional areas described in the B criteria.

         Because claimant has not established the B criteria of Listings 12.04, 12.05, and 12.06, the ALJ did not err in failing to find her disabled under those Listings.


         Claimant asserts that the ALJ improperly considered the opinions of the treating and examining physicians. The opinion of a treating physician “must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause' is shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted). Good cause exists when “(1) [the] treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.” Id. (alterations supplied). Additionally, the ALJ is not required to accept a conclusory statement from a medical source, even a treating source, that a claimant is unable to work, because the decision on that issue is not a medical question, but is a decision “reserved to the Commissioner.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d).

         Social Security regulations also provide that, when considering the weight to be given any medical opinion (regardless of whether it is from a treating or non-treating physician), the Commissioner should evaluate: the extent of the examining or treating relationship between the doctor and patient; whether the doctor's opinion can be supported by medical signs and laboratory findings; whether the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole; the doctor's specialization; and other factors. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). See also Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986) (“The weight afforded a physician's conclusory statements depends upon the extent to which they are supported by clinical or laboratory findings and are consistent with other evidence as to claimant's impairments.”).

         A. Dr. Ginas

         Dr. Douglas Ginas, claimant's treating physician, completed a “Physical Capacities Form” on April 17, 2017. He stated that claimant could sit for one hour at a time and stand for thirty minutes at a time. She would need to lie down with her legs propped up three hours in an eight-hour day. She would be off-task fifty percent of an eight-hour work day. During a thirty-day period, she would fail to report to work seven or eight days as a result of her medical conditions. Her limitations were not affected by drug or alcohol use. Instead, they were a result of degenerative disc disease in her spine, residuals from a motor vehicle accident, pain syndrome, anxiety syndrome, and radiculopathy. Claimant would experience sedation and constipation as a result of her medications.[7]

         The ALJ did not specifically state the weight she afforded to Dr. Ginas's opinions, but it is evident that she did not afford them much weight. She stated:

The claimant's doctor at Rapid Care, Douglas Ginas, M.D., completed a Physical Capacities Form on April 17, 2017[, ] and opined the claimant was not capable of performing even sedentary work. However, there is no evidentiary support for these restrictions. There is no objective evidence, even in her pain management records. In fact, recent treatment notes document her pain is well-controlled with her current medication regimen. The undersigned attempted to supplement the record to get objective evidence, as the only consultations were mental status evaluations, but the claimant did not report [to] the CE as requested.

Tr. 20 (alterations supplied).

         Other than stating general principles about the deference to be afforded treating physician opinions, claimant does not make any argument about why the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Ginas's assessment was improper. The court finds that the ALJ articulated good cause for rejecting the assessment, and her decision was supported by substantial evidence. On April 14, 2017, just three days before Dr. Ginas completed the Physical Capacities Form, claimant reported to Dr. Ginas that, with medication, her pain was at a level 4 of 10, and she could perform her daily living activities.[8] Claimant either made the same report, or stated that her pain level was 5 or 6 on medication, on May 17, [9] June 23, [10] July 21, [11] August 17, [12] September 25, [13]and October 10, 2017.[14] In addition, Dr. Ginas's opinion was inconsistent with claimant's daily activities, including caring for her four children, preparing meals, ...

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