United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER 
Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge
Rosetta Rudd commenced this action on December 15, 2017,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review
of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner denying her
application for supplemental security income
(“SSI”) benefits. See Doc. 1; R 10-28.
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI benefits
on May 1, 2014, alleging disability as of February 1, 2013,
due to anxiety, depression, hypertension, and low back
pain. See R. 208, 303. On November 1,
2016, Administrative Law Judge L. Dawn Pischek (“the
ALJ”) issued an adverse decision after holding a
hearing on plaintiff’s application. See R.
10-28. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request
for review, and the ALJ’s decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner. See R. 1-5.
instant appeal, plaintiff asks the court to reverse the
Commissioner’s decision and award benefits or, in the
alternative, to remand this cause to the Commissioner under
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Docs.
1 at 2; 12 at 13. This case is ripe for review pursuant to 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have
consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge.
See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); see also Docs.
10, 11. For the reasons stated herein, and based upon its
review of the record, the court finds that the
Commissioner’s decision is due to be reversed and
remanded for additional proceedings.
court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is
narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to
determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is
supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal
standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This court must
“scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the
decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial
evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d
1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less
than a preponderance.” Id. A reviewing court
“may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or
substitute [its] decision for that of the
[Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words, this court is
prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner’s findings
of fact de novo, even where a preponderance of the
evidence supports alternative conclusions.
the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by
substantial evidence, it reviews the ALJ’s legal
conclusions de novo because no presumption of
validity attaches to the ALJ’s determination of the
proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v.
Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the
court finds an error in the ALJ’s application of the
law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient
reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision.
Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th
qualify for SSI and establish his or her entitlement for a
period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined
by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated
thereunder. The Regulations define “disabled” as
“the inability to do 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 twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. §
416.905(a). To establish an entitlement to disability
benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a
“physical or mental impairment” that “must
result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological
abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20
C.F.R. § 416.908.
Regulations provide a five-step process for determining
whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine, in
(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals
an impairment listed by the Commissioner;
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work;
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in
the national economy.
Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993)
(citing to a formerly applicable C.F.R. section),
overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189
F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir.1999); accord McDaniel v.
Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The
sequential analysis goes as follows:
Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will
automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed
impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment
but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the
[Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some
Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v.
Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The
Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the
national economy in significant numbers. Foote, 67
F.3d at 1559.
HEARING AND ALJ’S DECISION
administrative hearing was held on February 26, 2016.
Plaintiff appeared and was represented by counsel. Plaintiff
testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). R.
decision dated November 1, 2016, the ALJ found that plaintiff
has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1,
2014. R. 12. The ALJ found that plaintiff has
the severe impairments of minimal early degenerative disc
disease, degenerative spur on the left heel with left ankle
swelling, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity,
hypertension, diabetes mellitus, affective disorder, anxiety
disorder, and personality disorder, but none of the
impairments or combination of impairments met or medically
equaled a listed impairment. R. 12-13. After considering
plaintiff’s impairments, symptoms, and the record as a
whole, the ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
work, “except that she can never be exposed to
unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; is limited to
simple, routine tasks with occasional change in a routine
work setting; can never interact directly with the public;
and can work in close proximity to others but must work
independently, not in a team.” R. 17-18. With the
assistance of VE testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff
was unable to perform her past relevant work, but she could
perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy. R. 26-27, 69. Upon that determination, the
ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability
since May 1, 2014. R. 27-28.
raises one claim on appeal-that the Commissioner’s
decision is not supported by substantial evidence because it
is inconsistent with the overwhelming majority of the medical
opinion evidence of record. Doc. 12 at 3. Plaintiff
challenges the ALJ’s findings related to the opinion
evidence of Dr. Fernando Lopez, her treating psychiatrist;
Dr. Mariel Clark, a consulting psychologist; Dr. Samuel
Williams, a non-examining psychiatrist, and Drs. Sarah Olaso
and Sam Banner; the latter two performed consulting physical
exams. Doc. 12 at 7-13. The Commissioner maintains that the
ALJ properly weighed the opinion evidence and the decision is
supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 13.
plaintiff’s challenge to the ALJ’s consideration
of the psychiatric and psychological opinion evidence
warrants remand for further consideration, the court does not
reach her argument related to the physical consultative
Summary of the psychiatric and psychological
early 2013, plaintiff was hospitalized for three days due to
suicidal thoughts.See R. 415-16. Shortly thereafter,
plaintiff began treatment with Dr. Lopez at SpectraCare
Health Systems, Inc. (“SpectraCare”). The bulk of
the mental health records in this case are from SpectraCare,
including Dr. Lopez’s treatment notes and summaries
from group and individual therapy sessions.
August 2014, Dr. Clark evaluated plaintiff upon request of
the DDS. On a mental status exam, Dr. Clark noted that
plaintiff was alert and oriented; had an anxious and
depressed affect; had intact memory; did not display evidence
of obsessions or delusions; had reasonably appropriate,
linear, and goal directed thoughts; and had good insight and
judgment. R. 508-09. Dr. Clark diagnosed major depression,
recurrent, severe with psychotic features; panic disorder
with agoraphobia; rule out obsessive-compulsive disorder;
physical abuse, victim; and sexual abuse of a child, victim.
R. 510. She assessed a global assessment of functioning
(“GAF”) score of 45 and stated that
plaintiff’s prognosis was
“guarded.” Id. Dr. Clark determined that
plaintiff “would exhibit moderate to severe impairments
when expected to respond appropriately to supervision,
coworkers, and work pressures encountered in the typical work
environment on a sustained basis.” R. 511.
September 2014, Dr. Williams completed a mental RFC
assessment form after reviewing plaintiff’s claim file.
He found that plaintiff was “moderately limited”
in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out
detailed instructions; maintain attention and concentration
for extended periods; work in coordination with or in
proximity to others without being distracted by them;
interact appropriately with the general public; accept
instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from
supervisors; get along with coworkers without distracting
them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; and respond
appropriately to changes in the work setting. R. 106-07. He
determined that plaintiff could understand, remember, and
carry out short and simple instructions; she could pay
attention for two hour time periods; she would work best in a
well-spaced area; contact with the general public and
coworkers should be casual; feedback should be constructive
and supportive; and changes in the workplace should be
infrequent and gradual. R. 106-08.
November 2014, Dr. Lopez completed a form that addressed
plaintiff’s degree of mental impairment in eighteen
areas (Dr. Lopez’s “RFC opinion”). R.
513-15. He determined that plaintiff had
“moderate” impairment in her ability to interact
appropriately with the general public; ask simple questions
or request assistance; understand, remember, and carry out
simple instructions; and sustain a routine without special
assistance; and “marked” impairment in her
ability to get along with coworkers or peers; understand,
remember, and carry out complex instructions; understand,
remember, and carry out repetitive tasks; maintain attention
and concentration for extended periods; perform activities
within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be
punctual within customary tolerances; complete a normal
workday/workweek without interruption from psychologically
based symptoms and perform at a consistent pace without an
unreasonable number and length of rest periods; make simple
work-related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision;
respond appropriately to changes in the ...