United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff
Violet Denise Garrett seeks judicial review of a final
adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The
Commissioner denied Ms. Garrett's claims for disability
insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After
careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner's
Garrett applied for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 2, 20). Ms.
Garrett alleges that her disability began on March 20, 2012.
(Doc. 6-7, p. 39; Doc. 6-3, p. 44). The Commissioner
initially denied Ms. Garrett's claims. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 2,
20). Ms. Garret requested a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-5, p. 2). The ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 41-49).
Garrett filed an administrative appeal. (Doc. 6-6, p. 29,
31-32). The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision
and remanded Ms. Garrett's claims for further review.
(Doc. 6-4, pp. 56-57). Following the Appeals Council's
remand, a new ALJ held a supplemental hearing. (Doc. 6-3, p.
39). This ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Doc. 6-3, pp.
16-28). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Garrett's
request for review, making the Commissioner's decision
final for this Court's judicial review. (Doc. 6-3, p. 2).
See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in
this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council
denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the
ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and
[his] ‘legal conclusions with close
scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013)
(quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th
Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in
the record to support the ALJ's factual findings.
“Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is
such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir.
2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may
not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence,
” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.
Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d
1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation
omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if
the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's
findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing
Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).
respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must
determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal
standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's
application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ
failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that
the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court
must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled,
an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe
impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the
impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified
impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment,
whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past
relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there
are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that
the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience.
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.
determined that Ms. Garrett meets the Social Security
Act's insured status requirements through March 31, 2013.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ found that Ms. Garrett has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged
onset date of March 30, 2012. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ
determined that Ms. Garrett suffers from the following severe
impairments: osteoarthritis, bilateral foot pain, and mild
degenerative joint disease. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ
determined that Ms. Garrett suffers from the non-severe
impairments of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines,
obesity, and major depressive disorder. (Doc. 6-3, pp.
19-22). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ
concluded that Ms. Garrett does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-3, p. 23).
light of Ms. Garrett's impairments, the ALJ evaluated her
residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms.
Garrett has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she
can occasionally balance, stoop, and climb ramps and stairs;
but never kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. (Doc. 6-3, p. 23). “Sedentary work involves
lifting no more than ten pounds at a time and occasionally
lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and
small tools.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a),
416.967(a). “Although a sedentary job is defined as one
which involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and
standing is often necessary in carrying out job
duties.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a),
416.967(a). “Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing
are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are
met.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a).
The ALJ found that Ms. Garrett can constantly handle, reach,
finger, and feel but should avoid concentrated exposure to
extreme heat and cold, humidity, wetness, and vibrations.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 23). Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that
Ms. Garett is unable to perform her past relevant work as a
childcare worker, windshield inspector, cook, or home aide.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 26). Relying on testimony from a vocational
expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy
that Ms. Garrett can perform, including general office clerk,
order clerk, receptionist, and information clerk. (Doc. 6-3,
pp. 27-28). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Garrett
has not been under a disability within the meaning of the
Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, p. 28).
Garrett contends that she is entitled to relief from the
ALJ's decision because the ALJ evaluated several medical
opinions improperly. (Doc. 8, pp. 6, 10). After considering
the record as a whole, the Court affirms the ALJ's
Garrett maintains that the ALJ should have accepted the
physical capacities opinion of Dr. Howard, Ms. Garrett's
treating doctor. (Doc. 6-15, pp. 2, 57). “Absent
‘good cause,' an ALJ is to give the medical
opinions of treating physicians ‘substantial or
considerable weight.'” Winschel, 631 F.3d
at 1179 (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436,
1440 (11th Cir. 1997)). When declining to give a treating
physician's opinion considerable weight, an ALJ must
clearly articulate the reasons for her decision.
Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179. Good cause exists when:
(1) [the] treating physician's opinion was not bolstered
by the evidence;
(2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the]
treating physician's opinion was conclusory or
inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.
Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1241 (11th Cir.
2004); Lustgarten v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No.
17-14763, 2019 WL 6048534, at *2 (11th Cir. Nov. 15, 2019)
(quoting Phillips for good cause framework).
assigned minimal weight to Dr. Howard's opinion. (Doc.
6-3, p. 26). The ALJ found that Dr. Howard's functional
assessment lacked support “in his own treatment
records, the other medical evidence of record, [and Ms.
Garrett's] admitted daily activities.” (Doc. 6-3,
p. 26). The ALJ reasoned that Dr. Howard's “records
do not contain evidence of the claimant having substantial
restrictions in walking, standing, or sitting, or that the
claimant experiences significant side effects from her
prescribed medication.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). The ALJ
found that the absence of “substantial changes to [Ms.
Garrett's] pain management medication” undermined
Dr. Howard's opinion. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). The ALJ pointed
out that prior treatment records showed that Ms. Garrett had
a normal gait. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). To determine whether the
ALJ has demonstrated good cause, the Court begins with a
review of Dr. Howard's treatment records.
Garrett visited Dr. Howard in August 2014 and complained of
migraine headaches and chronic back pain. (Doc. 6-15, p.
According to Dr. Howard's notes, Ms. Garrett's back
pain began after “[s]he had extensive surgery on [her]
right foot which altered her gait.” (Doc. 6-15, p. 57).
Ms. Garrett told Dr. Howard that she could not “deal
with [her back pain] through the day” and that it was
“worse at night.” (Doc. 6-15, p. 58).
Garrett reported undergoing an orthopedic evaluation
“which was essentially negative.” (Doc. 6-15, p.
57). Ms. Garrett told Dr. Howard that she had been through
“extensive physical therapy, ” but she still had
“a lot of discomfort.” (Doc. 6-15, p. 57).
Garrett reported having prescriptions for Norco (one 7.5-325
mg tablet every 12 hours) and Ultram (two 50 mg tablets every
eight hours) for pain. (Doc. 6-15, p. 57). Ms. Garrett told
Dr. Howard that she had taken “multiple types of
opioids in the past, but all of these made her feel
bad.” (Doc. 6-15, p. 57). Ms. Garrett told Dr. Howard
that because of those negative side effects, “she does
not take [opioids] very often.” (Doc. 6-15, p. 57).
Garrett reported taking “Aleve intermittently for this
pain.” (Doc. 6-15, p. 57). According to Ms. Garrett,
she suffers from migraines, but “Topamax has been very
effective” in treating this condition. (Doc. 6-15, p.
Howard provided the following assessments relevant to Ms.
1. Chronic pain management. The patient only takes
hydrocodone every other day, but I am concerned about
escalating need for this medication due to use I have asked
her to try Mobic intermittently. I have also given her
trigger-point injection x3 of DKL into the right gluteal
piriformis musculature. This is secondary to spasm. The
patient does have a muscle prominence on the right gluteal
piriformis musculature with significant tender points.
Trigger points are injected at 2-cm intervals; 3 injections
were given. Family support is excellent. She is married. Her
relationship is very stable at this time. Psychological state
is excellent. She is doing very well at this point. Mental
status is good. She has no evidence of depression at this
point. Diagnosis is myofascial back pain aggravated by mild
scoliosis with unstable gait. Orthopedic evaluation has been
completed. Pain options are physical therapy, which will be
initiated. She has undergone physical therapy in the past,
but I do not feel that she has continued physical therapy on
a daily basis at home. I would like to institute DS form [of]
treatment. The patient has been transiently on medications to
include hydrocodone, one every other day, as well as Ultram
intermittently. I feel comfortable with Ultram but would like
her to continue to limit the hydrocodone. Continue the
gabapentin at night, which has been very effective for her. I
would like her to hold the Zocor, as this may well cause
myofascial pain that would mimic underlying pathology.
Epidural is a consideration at later date. Next visit,
consider physical therapy. Lidoderm patch is added, as well
as a prescription for Norco 7.5 mg, #30 tablets, 0 refills.
2. Migraine headaches, on Topamax, doing extremely well at
this time. She has been on ...