United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Laura
Davis seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of
the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied
Ms. Davis's claims for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. For the reasons stated below,
the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision because
substantial evidence supports the decision.
Davis applied for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 41, 40). She
alleges that her disability began on December 31, 2014. (Doc.
6-4, pp. 41, 40). The Commissioner initially denied Ms.
Davis's claims. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 41, 40). Ms. Davis
requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
(Doc. 6-5, p. 16). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision.
(Doc. 6-3, pp. 24-38). The Appeals Council declined Ms.
Davis'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
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, ” a district 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. Davis meets the Social Security Act's
insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, and
that Ms. Davis has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset date of December 31, 2014.
(Doc. 6-3, pp. 18, 26). The ALJ determined that Ms. Davis
suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative
disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, affective disorder,
and, anxiety disorder. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). The ALJ determined
that Ms. Davis suffers from the non-severe impairments of
sciatica and plantar fasciitis. (Doc. 6-3, p.
Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded
that Ms. Davis 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. 27).
these impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Davis's residual
functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms. Davis 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 climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but not
use ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). The ALJ
found that Ms. Davis:
must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibrations,
hazardous machinery and unprotected heights, and would be
capable of performing simple routine job tasks requiring
occasional contact with the general public and co-workers.
Claimant is limited to no more than frequent fine and gross
manipulation with the right dominant hand.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 31). “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).
on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Davis is unable to
perform her past relevant work as a childcare worker,
windshield inspector, cook, or home aide. (Doc. 6-3, p. 36).
Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found
that jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Davis can
perform, including final assembler, wire tapper, and optical
goods assembler. (Doc. 6-3, p. 37). Accordingly, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Davis has not been under a disability
within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, p.
Davis contends that she is entitled to relief from the
ALJ's decision because the ALJ asked the vocational
expert an unclear hypothetical question and because the ALJ
evaluated her pain testimony improperly. (Doc. 8, pp. 13, 15,
16). The Court begins its analysis of these issues with a
review of the ALJ's pain assessment and then considers
the ALJ's hypothetical question.
Eleventh Circuit pain standard “applies when a
disability claimant attempts to establish disability through
his own testimony of pain or other subjective
symptoms.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221,
1223 (11th Cir. 1991); Coley v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., No. 18-11954, 2019 WL 1975989, at *3 (11th Cir.
May 3, 2019). When relying upon subjective symptoms to
establish disability, “the claimant must satisfy two
parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an
underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective
medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged
[symptoms]; or (b) that the objectively determined medical
condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the
claimed [symptoms].” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284
F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt, 921
F.2d at 1223); Chatham v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., No. 18-11708, 2019 WL 1758438, at *2 (11th Cir.
Apr. 18, 2019) (citing Wilson). If the ALJ does not
properly apply the three-part standard, reversal is
appropriate. McLain v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin.,
676 Fed.Appx. 935, 937 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing
claimant's credible testimony coupled with medical
evidence of an impairing condition “is itself
sufficient to support a finding of disability.”
Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223; see Gombash v.
Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 566 Fed.Appx. 857, 859
(11th Cir. 2014) (“A claimant may establish that he has
a disability ‘through his own testimony of pain or
other subjective symptoms.'”) (quoting Dyer v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)). If an
ALJ rejects a claimant's subjective testimony, the ALJ
“must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for
doing so.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225;
Coley, 2019 WL 1975989, at *3. As a matter of law,
the Secretary must accept the claimant's testimony if the
ALJ inadequately or improperly discredits the testimony.
Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir.
1988); Kalishek v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 470
Fed.Appx. 868, 871 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Cannon);
see Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1012 (11th Cir.
1987) (“It is established in this circuit if the
Secretary fails to articulate reasons for refusing to credit
a claimant's subjective pain testimony, then the
Secretary, as a matter of law, has accepted that testimony as
credibility is at issue, the provisions of Social Security
Regulation 16-3p apply. SSR 16-3p provides:
[W]e recognize that some individuals may experience symptoms
differently and may be limited by symptoms to a greater or
lesser extent than other individuals with the same medical
impairments, the same objective medical evidence, and the
same non-medical evidence. In considering the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of an individual's
symptoms, we examine the entire case record, including the
objective medical evidence; an individual's statements
about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of
symptoms; statements and other information provided by
medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant
evidence in the individual's case record.
SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *4. An ALJ must explain the
basis for findings relating to a claimant's description
[I]t is not sufficient . . . to make a single, conclusory
statement that “the individual's statements about
his or her symptoms have been considered” or that
“the statements about the individual's symptoms are
(or are not) supported or consistent.” It is also not
enough . . . simply to recite the factors described in the
regulations for evaluating symptoms. The determination or
decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given
to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and
supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the
individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the
adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.
SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *10. In evaluating a
claimant's reported symptoms, an ALJ must consider:
(i) [the claimant's] daily activities; (ii) [t]he
location, duration, frequency, and intensity of [the
claimant's] pain or other symptoms; (iii) [p]recipitating
and aggravating factors; (iv) [t]he type, dosage,
effectiveness, and side effects of any medication [the
claimant] take[s] or ha[s] taken to alleviate . . . pain or
other symptoms; (v) [t]reatment, other than medication, [the
claimant] receive[s] or ha[s] received for relief of . . .
pain or other symptoms; (vi) [a]ny measures [the claimant]
use[s] or ha[s] used to relieve . . . pain or other symptoms
(e.g., lying flat on your back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes
every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.); and (vii) [o]ther
factors concerning [the claimant's] functional
limitations and restrictions due to pain or other symptoms.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), 416.929(c)(3);
Leiter v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 377
Fed.Appx. 944, 947 (11th Cir. 2010).
the ALJ found that Ms. Davis's medical records, including
documentation of sporadic subjective complaints of back pain
and mild carpal tunnel syndrome, do not support Ms.
Davis's testimony regarding her pain and limitations.
(Doc. 6-3, pp. 32-33). Accordingly, the Court examines Ms.
Davis's testimony and then compares her testimony to the
medical and other evidence in the record.
Davis testified that she has three children. (Doc. 6-3, p.
51). Ms. Davis's youngest child was 16 years old when the
hearing took place. (Doc. 6-3, p. 51). According to Ms.
Davis, she is unable to work primarily because of herniated
discs in her back and bipolar disorder. She also suffers from
depression and carpal tunnel syndrome. (Doc. 6-3, p. 59). Ms.
Davis testified that she has back pain on the right and
sciatica on the left radiating down into both legs. (Doc.
6-3, pp. 59-60).
Davis recalled that she stopped working in poultry at
Cagle's in 2013 after her “back started acting
up.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Ms. Davis testified that she
took “more breaks” and left her “line to go
sit down” because of back pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Ms.
Davis testified that she spent three months doing laundry for
Days Inn in 2014. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). According to Ms. Davis,
she was unable to perform that job because the position
involved “too much bending over and putting stuff in
the washers and dryers.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Ms. Davis
recalled being a launderer for Best Western in 2014 before
she stopped working completely. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Since
then, Ms. Davis testified that her children have taken care
of her. (Doc. 6-3, p. 59).
Davis testified that taking tramadol helps “some”
to manage her pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 60). Ms. Davis rated
her pain seven out of ten with medication. (Doc. 6-3, p. 60).
Ms. Davis testified that getting out of a chair or bed,
bending, stretching, or reaching exacerbates her pain. (Doc.
6-3, p. 60). According to Ms. Davis, she alternates between
sitting and standing for 20 or 25 minutes. (Doc. 6-3, pp.
60-61). Ms. Davis testified that she cannot walk beyond 20
minutes and cannot lift anything over five pounds. (Doc. 6-3,
p. 61). According to Ms. Davis, she “tr[ies] not to
lift anything heavy because it pulls on [her] back.”
(Doc. 6-3, p. 61). Ms. Davis testified that she uses a
heating pad and ice 15 minutes daily to reduce her pain.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 61). According to Ms. Davis, she lies down
about an hour and a half daily to manage her pain. (Doc. 6-3,
Davis testified that she tries not to move her dominant right
hand because carpal tunnel syndrome causes her hand to
“cramp up” and her fingers to stiffen so that
she can “hardly bend them.” (Doc. 6-3, pp. 63,
64). According to Ms. Davis, she experiences these symptoms
after using her hand for three or four minutes and has to
rest a few minutes (or longer) before the symptoms subside.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Ms. Davis testified that she manages her
carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms with heat and ice and the
same pain and anti-inflammation medication she takes for her
back. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 64, 63).
Davis testified that her husband does many of the household
chores, but she is able to fold clothes and vacuum. (Doc.
6-3, p. 64). According to Ms. Davis, she cannot mop because
“it pulls [her] back.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Ms.
Davis testified that cooking is not an issue because she and
her husband eat out. (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Ms. Davis testified
that she avoids bending to pick something off of the floor.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 65). According to Ms. Davis, she has difficulty
grabbing onto items and cannot open a jar if someone has
twisted the lid on tightly. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 65, 66).
August 2015, two years before her administrative hearing, Ms.
Davis completed a functional report. In it, she stated that
after getting up and going to the bathroom in the morning,
she sits on the couch for a few minutes to rest her back.
(Doc. 6-7, pp. 35, 27); (Doc. 6-3, p. 46). According to the
report, Ms. Davis cannot stand more than 15 minutes at a time
and uses a heating pad or pillows for her back when sitting.
(Doc. 6-7, p. 27). Ms. Davis indicated that her granddaughter
helps her with laundry so that Ms. Davis may avoid bending.
(Doc. 6-7, pp. 27-28). Ms. Davis reported that ...