United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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).
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
claimant presents the following four issues for review:
(1) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
determination that the claimant's subjective testimony
(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
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).
. . . 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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
Rules and Vocational Experts
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.
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
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.
and Mental Impairments
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.
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.)
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. ...