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Haynes v. Berryhill

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

March 21, 2019





         On July 27, 2011 the claimant, Jerry Haynes, applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (R. 237-39). The claimant alleged disability beginning October 15, 2009 because of depression, suicidal thoughts, low blood pressure, knee pain, recurrent ear infections, and recurrent MRSA infections. (R. 88-91). The Commissioner denied the claimant's application for disability insurance benefits on November 17, 2011. (R. 124-29). The claimant filed for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held an initial hearing February 26, 2014. (R. 133-34).

         On May 9, 2014, the ALJ denied the claimant's application, finding that the claimant was not disabled at any time during the relevant period and was, therefore, ineligible for social security benefits. (R. 100-14). The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded with instructions for the ALJ to (1) consider additionally collected evidence and (2) pose complete hypothetical questions to the Vocational Expert. (R. 121-22). The ALJ held a second hearing on May 4, 2016. (R. 79).

         On August 11, 2016, the ALJ again denied claimant's application. (R. 19-32). The Appeals Council subsequently denied the claimant's request for review on August 16, 2016. (R. 1-6). Accordingly, the second ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The claimant has exhausted his administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, this court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.


         The claimant presents the following four issues for review:

(1) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that the claimant's subjective testimony lacked credibility;
(2) whether the ALJ accorded proper weight to the opinions of treating physician Dr. Jose Oblena and consulting physician Dr. David Wilson;
(3) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) determination that the claimant could perform work in the national economy;
(4) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's non-reliance on the Medical Vocational Guidelines and limitations included in the hypotheticals he posed to the vocational expert.


         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports his 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).

         “No . . . presumption 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 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).

         This 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 a 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.

         The 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. 1986).


         Subjective Pain Testimony

         An ALJ considering a claimant's pain and other subjective testimony must first determine whether the claimant has “evidence of an underlying medical condition.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2s 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. Once a claimant shows an underlying medical condition, he must show 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 be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223 (citing Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551, 1553 (11th Cir. 1986)). Subjective pain testimony can satisfy the pain standard, but only if medical evidence supports that subjective testimony such that is “credited.” See Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1223, 1242 (11th Cir. 1983); Benson v. Schweiker, 652 F.2d 406, 408-09 (11th Cir. 1981).

         If an ALJ discredits a claimant's subjective testimony, he must articulate his reasons. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991). The ALJ may consider the claimant's daily activities to discredit pain testimony. Harwell v. Heckler, 735 F.2d 1292, 1293 (11th Cir. 1984). A reviewing court will not disturb a clearly articulated credibility finding with supporting substantial evidence in the record. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561-62 (11th Cir. 1995).

         Medical Opinions

         An ALJ must state with particularity and explain the weight he gave different medical opinions. Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987). The ALJ must give “[t]he testimony of a treating physician…substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause' is shown to the contrary.” MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986). But, a doctor who examines a patient on only one occasion is not considered a “treating physician.” McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987).

         Additionally, when objective medical evidence does not support the treating physician's opinion or it is wholly conclusive, the ALJ may discount the opinion. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004). When the ALJ articulates specific reasons for failing to give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion, and substantial evidence supports those reasons, the ALJ does not commit reversible error. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005). The ALJ is “concerned…with the doctors' evaluations of [the claimant's] condition and the medical consequences thereof, not their opinions of the legal consequences of his condition.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).

         Additionally, a claimant applying for disability insurance benefits must demonstrate that he was disabled “on or before” the date he was last insured. Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A)). A medical opinion or examination that occurs after the “relevant disability period” may be a “retrospective diagnosis that [is] not entitled to deference unless corroborated by contemporaneous medical evidence of a disabling condition.” Mason v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 430 Fed.Appx. 830, 832 (11th Cir. 2011).

         Residual Functional Capacity

         A claimant's RFC is the work that an individual “is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his…impairments.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)). The ALJ must first assess the claimant's functional limitations and restrictions and then express his functional limitations in terms of exertional levels. See Castel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 355 Fed.Appx. 260, 263 (11th Cir. 2009); Freeman v. Barnhart, 220 Fed.Appx. 957, 959-60 (11th Cir. 2007); see also Bailey v. Astrue, 5:11-CV-3583-LSC, 2013 WL 531075 (N.D.Ala. Feb.11, 2013).

         The ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence in assessing the claimant's functional limitations, including:

medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, the effects of treatment, including limitations or restrictions imposed by the mechanics of treatment (e.g., frequency of treatment, duration, disruption to routine, side effects of medication), reports of daily activities, lay evidence, recorded observations, medical source statements, effects of symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributed to a medically determinable impairment, evidence from attempts to work, need for a structured living environment, and work evaluations, if available.

SSR 96-8p at *4-*5.

         Grid Rules and Vocational Experts

         After the ALJ has determined that a person can no longer perform his former occupation because of impairment, an ALJ has two avenues to assess whether that person can perform any other work within the economy. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1239-40. The first avenue that an ALJ may use to make this determination is through application of the Medical Vocational Guidelines (grid rules). Id. However, reliance on the grid rules is inappropriate “when a claimant has non-exertional impairment that significantly limits his basic work skills….” Wolfe v. Chater, 86 F.3d 1072, 1077 (11th Cir. 1996). Examples of non-exertional impairments “include ‘difficulty maintaining attention or concentrating,' and ‘difficulty understanding or remembering detailed instructions.'” Id. at 1078. When a non-exertional impairment exists, the ALJ must consult a vocational expert. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1242.

         For a vocational expert's testimony to constitute substantial evidence, the ALJ must pose a hypothetical question that comprises all of the claimant's impairments. Vega v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 265 F.3d 1224, 1229 (11th Cir. 2001). An ALJ is not required to include limitations or impairments unsupported by substantial evidence in the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert. Turner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 182 Fed.Appx. 946, 950 (11th Cir. 2006).

         IV. FACTS

         The claimant was 54 years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision. (R. 84). The claimant completed the ninth grade and later obtained his GED. (R. 85, 325). The claimant has eleven years of past relevant work as an eighteen-wheel truck driver but has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since early October 2009. (R. 86, 238, 266). The claimant alleges disability as of October 15, 2009, because of depression, suicidal thoughts, low blood pressure, severe knee pain, chronic ear infections, and recurrent MRSA infections. (R. 88-91).

         Physical and Mental Impairments

         On July 27, 2009, the claimant's wife called the police because she was afraid that the claimant would cause bodily harm to himself. The police transported the claimant to the emergency room at Teche Regional Medical Center. The claimant denied any suicidal thoughts and told attending physician Dr. Ryan Bird that he had no plan to cause bodily harm to himself. Dr. Bird's records state that the claimant was alert, able to obey commands, and had a blood pressure of 115/83. (R.540-547).

         Two years later, on July 18, 2011, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits based on a primary complaint of mood and anxiety disorders. (R. 99). On August 10, 2011, the claimant began outpatient treatment at Cheaha Mental Health Center. The claimant reported sleep deprivation, a lack of motivation, and feelings of depression and helplessness. The attending physician prescribed monthly therapy sessions for one-half to one hour “or as needed.” (R. 434.)

         The claimant returned to the Cheaha Mental Health Center on August 23, 2011, and September 27, 2011. At both visits, the claimant reported a feeling of general depression and difficulty sleeping. At the August 23 visit, attending physician Dr. Christopher Stanley prescribed 100 milligrams of Trazodone and 20 milligrams of Citalopram (Celexa), both antidepressants. At the September 27 visit, Dr. ...

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