United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
F. BIVINS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Julius Whatley (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) seeks
judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security denying his claim for a period of disability,
disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security
income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42
U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and 1381, et
seq. On October 24, 2018, the parties consented to have
the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case.
(Doc. 19). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned
to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 73. (Doc. 20). Upon careful consideration of
the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties,
it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of
the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
filed his application for benefits on July 15, 2014, alleging
disability beginning May 31, 2013, based on high blood
pressure, diabetes, arthritis in his shoulders, hands, feet,
and neck, high cholesterol, and acid reflux. (Doc. 11 at 35,
222, 244). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon
timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing
before Administrative Law Judge Walter Vance Lassiter, Jr.
(hereinafter “ALJ”) on March 16, 2016.
(Id. at 51). Plaintiff, who was represented by
counsel, appeared by video from Selma, Alabama at the hearing
and provided testimony related to his claims. (Id.
at 57-81). A vocational expert (“VE”) also
appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id.
at 81-86). On July 28, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled.
(Id. at 32). The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review on September 15, 2017.
(Id. at 4). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated
July 28, 2016, became the final decision of the
exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed
the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was
conducted on November 27, 2018 (Doc. 23), and the parties
agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is
properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
Issues on Appeal
1. Whether the ALJ properly considered the opinion of
Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Bruce Taylor,
2. Whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”)
3. Whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's determination that Plaintiff retains the ability to
perform his past relevant work?
4. Whether the ALJ erred by failing to fully develop
the record by ordering consultative orthopedic and
5. Whether the ALJ erred when an individual with
Plaintiff's vocational profile, limited to a full range
of light work and unable to perform his past work, would be
found disabled under Medical-Vocational Guidelines Rule
was born on September 8, 1959, and was fifty-six years of age
at the time of his administrative hearing on March 16, 2016.
(Doc. 11 at 57, 222). Plaintiff has a twelfth-grade education
and attended trade school for auto body work. (Id.
at 57-58, 245). Plaintiff last worked for a tree-trimming
service in 2011. (Id. at 280-81). Plaintiff also
formerly worked as a store laborer, lumber stacker, candy
mixer, and beef boner. (Id. at 59-62, 81, 280,
282-84). He also worked jobs making concrete septic tanks and
building windows. (Id. at 64, 285-86).
to Plaintiff, he can no longer work because when he gets
overheated, it makes him nauseous, weak, and
dizzy. (Id. at 73). In addition, he has
back, neck, and shoulder pain, as well as numbness and
tingling in his feet and an inability to pick up small
objects with his fingers. (Id. at 73-75). At the
time of his hearing, Plaintiff was on two medications for
high blood pressure, a statin for cholesterol, Meclizine for
dizziness, and Amitriptyline for numbness and tingling in his
feet. (Id. at 73-74). He also was prescribed
Tramadol for pain in his back, neck, and shoulders.
(Id. at 73). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified
that his medical treatment for diabetes has consisted of
taking “about three or four” medications, but no
insulin shots. (Id. at 74).
Standard of Review
reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role
is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to
determining (1) whether the decision of the Commissioner is
supported by substantial evidence and (2) whether the correct
legal standards were applied. Martin v. Sullivan, 894
F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the
facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment
for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792
F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's
findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon
substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d
1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991). “Substantial evidence is
more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance”
and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d
1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). In determining whether
substantial evidence exists, a reviewing court must consider
the record as a whole, taking into account evidence both
favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision.
Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986)
(per curiam); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
10163, at *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).
Statutory and Regulatory Framework
individual who applies for Social Security disability
benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as the
“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. §
423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations
provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for
determining whether a claimant has proven his or her
disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
claimant must first prove that he or she is not engaged in
substantial gainful activity. Carpenter v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 614 Fed.Appx. 482, 486 (11th Cir. 2015) (per
curiam). The second step requires the claimant to prove that
he or she has a severe impairment or combination of
impairments. Id. If, at the third step, the claimant
proves that the impairment or combination of impairments
meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is
automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or
work experience. Id. If the claimant cannot prevail
at the third step, the ALJ must determine the claimant's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before
proceeding to step four. Id. A claimant's RFC is
an assessment, based on all relevant medical and other
evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work
despite his or her impairments. Lewis v. Callahan,
125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (llth Cir. 1997). Once a claimant's
RFC is determined, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth
step, where the claimant must prove an inability to perform
his or her past relevant work. Carpenter, 614
Fed.Appx. at 486.
claimant meets his or her burden at the fourth step, it then
becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove at the fifth
step that the claimant is capable of engaging in another kind
of substantial gainful employment which exists in significant
numbers in the national economy, given the claimant's
RFC, age, education, and work history. Sryock v.
Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985) (per
curiam). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are
such jobs the claimant can perform, the burden then shifts
back to the claimant to prove his or her inability to perform
those jobs in order to be found disabled. Hale v.
Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing
Francis v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1562, 1564 (11th Cir.
The ALJ's Findings
case sub judice, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has
the non-severe impairments of type two diabetes, benign
hypertension, esophageal reflux disease, unspecified
insomnia, history of gastroparesis, history of mononeuritis
of the left lower extremity, possible history of lumbago, and
possible history of cervicalgia which, when considered in
combination, are severe. (Doc. 11 at 38). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff's impairments, when considered individually and
in combination, do not meet or medically equal any of the
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526,
416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). (Id.). The ALJ
further found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform medium
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and
416.967(c), with the following additional limitations:
Plaintiff can stand and/or walk for at least two hours
without interruption and at least six hours over the course
of an eight-hour workday; Plaintiff can sit for at least two
hours without interruption and at least six hours over the
course of an eight-hour workday; Plaintiff can occasionally
crawl and can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, and
scaffolds; Plaintiff cannot climb ropes, poles, or trees;
Plaintiff can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch;
Plaintiff can occasionally work in poorly ventilated areas;
Plaintiff cannot work at unprotected heights; and Plaintiff
can frequently operate motorized vehicles and operate
hazardous machinery. (Id. at 39). The ALJ concluded
that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a
beef boner, candy mixer, store laborer, and tree-trimmer
helper, both as actually performed and as generally
performed. (Id. at 46-47). Thus, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 47).
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of
weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician,
Dr. Bruce Taylor, M.D.
brief, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to
assign at least deferential weight to the opinions of his
treating primary care physician, Dr. Bruce Taylor, M.D., that
his back and neck pain, dizziness, and gait instability
prevent him from being able to work. (Doc. 14 at 6-10). The
Commissioner counters that the ALJ properly considered Dr.
Taylor's opinions concerning Plaintiff's functional
limitations and gave valid reasons for according the opinions
little weight. (Doc. 17 at 4-5). The Commissioner further
argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's