United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division
LORENE D. FLAGG, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE
THOMAS ANDERSON CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Lorene D. Flagg filed this action to obtain judicial review
of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying her
application for disability insurance benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act (“Act”).
Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration by the Social Security Administration.
Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative
law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on December 7,
2012. On December 28, 2012, the ALJ denied the claim. The
Appeals Council subsequently denied the request for review.
Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's
final decision. For the reasons set forth below, the decision
of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial
review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a
hearing to which he or she was a party. “The court
shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and
transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or
reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security, with or without remanding the cause for a
rehearing.” The Court's review is limited to
determining whether there is substantial evidence to support
the Commissioner's decision,  and whether the correct
legal standards were applied.
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” It is “more than a mere scintilla of
evidence, but less than a preponderance.” The Commissioner,
not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the
evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve
material conflicts in the testimony, and to decide the case
accordingly. When substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if
substantial evidence also supports the opposite
was born on October 25, 1975. She earned her GED certificate
about three months before the administrative hearing.
Plaintiff alleges that she became disabled on March 29, 2010.
In a Disability Report, Plaintiff stated that the following
conditions limit her ability to work: depression and
made the following findings: (1) Plaintiff met the insured
status requirements of the Social Security Act through
December 31, 2015; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date;
(3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: bipolar
disorder, panic disorder, and a history of drug and alcohol
abuse, but she does not have impairments, either alone or in
combination, that meet or equal the requirements of any
listed impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P,
app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (4) Plaintiff retains
the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of
work at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: she is able to understand simple,
detailed one-to-three step tasks and instructions; she is
able to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace in two
hour segments across a normal workday/week; she can relate
with peers and supervisors in settings involving less
frequent social interaction; she cannot work effectively with
the general public; she would work better with things rather
than people; she is able to adapt to gradual changes and
make/set goals and plans independently; (5) Plaintiff is
capable of performing her past relevant work as a hand packer
and a production assembler; (6) Plaintiff was not under a
disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date
of this decision.
Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to
engage in substantial gainful activity. The claimant
bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to
benefits.The initial burden of going forward is on
the claimant to show that he or she is disabled from engaging
in his or her former employment; the burden of going forward
then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence
of available employment compatible with the claimant's
disability and background.
Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to
determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of
1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful
activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will
not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration
of vocational factors, if an individual is not working and is
suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration
requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in
Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations.
4. An individual who can perform work that he or she has done
in the past will not be found to be disabled.
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work,
other factors including age, education, past work experience
and residual functional capacity must be considered to
determine if other work can be performed.
review is not necessary if it is determined that an
individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential
analysis. Here, the sequential analysis proceeded
to the fourth step with a finding that Plaintiff can perform
her past relevant work. The Court finds that substantial
evidence supports this determination.
argues that the ALJ's finding that she retains the
residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant
work is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ
did not consider all of her impairments and failed to provide
sufficient reasons for not finding these impairments to be
severe, did not properly weigh the medical opinion evidence,
and failed to properly consider and weigh the Clinically
Related Group (“CRG”) Assessment forms.
Plaintiff's arguments are not persuasive.
noted above, the initial burden of going forward is on
Plaintiff to show that she is disabled from engaging in her
former employment; once she makes that showing, the burden of
going forward shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the
existence of available employment compatible with the
claimant's disability and background. It is
Plaintiff's burden to prove that she has disabling
limitations, not the ALJ's.
found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and a history of drug and
alcohol abuse. She did not find Plaintiff's chronic
post-traumatic stress (“PTSD”) to be a severe
impairment even though Plaintiff had been diagnosed with
such. Plaintiff contends that this was reversible error.
However, Plaintiff does not explain what additional
functional limitations are caused by her PTSD that are not
accounted for by the ALJ's findings. The mere fact that
Plaintiff has a diagnosis or diagnoses does not mean that she
has disabling limitations because a diagnosis, in and of
itself, “says nothing about the severity of the
condition.” Instead, the ALJ must consider the
actual work-related impact of those diagnoses.
making her determination, the ALJ gave great weight to the
opinion of Jeffrey Bryant, Ph.D., which recognized
Plaintiff's PTSD diagnosis in assessing functional
limitations. Given that the ALJ gave great weight to
a medical opinion that accounted for functional limitations
related to Plaintiff's PTSD and were essentially the same
limitations as those included in the ALJ's residual
functional capacity finding, the Court finds that the
residual functional capacity finding accounts for any
symptoms attributable to PTSD. Moreover, as long as the ALJ
considers all of an individual's impairments, as in this
case, the “failure to find additional severe
impairments . . . does not constitute reversible
error.” That is, any error would be harmless
because the ALJ found in Plaintiff's favor at step two in
the sequential evaluation process and then continued with the
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by not giving proper
weight to the opinion of the Plaintiff's treating source,
Karen Alexander-Jowers, M.A. Medical opinions are to be
weighed by the process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c). Under the treating physician rule, an ALJ must
give controlling weight to the opinion of a claimant's
treating physician if it “is well-supported by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial
evidence in [the claimant's] case
record.” The term “not inconsistent”
is meant to convey that “a well-supported treating
source medical opinion need not be supported directly by all
of the other evidence, (i.e., it does not have to be
consistent with all the other evidence) as long as there is
no other substantial evidence in the case record that
contradicts or conflicts with the
ALJ decides that the opinion of a treating source should not
be given controlling weight, the ALJ must take certain
factors into consideration when determining how much weight
to give the opinion, including “the length of the
treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the
nature and extent of the treatment relationship,
supportability of the opinion, consistency of the opinion
with the record as a whole, and the specialization of the
treating source.” Any decision denying benefits
“must contain specific reasons for the weight given to
the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the
evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently
specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight
the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical
opinion and the reasons for that weight.”
an opinion from a medical source who has examined a claimant
is given more weight than that from a source who has not
performed an examination,  and an opinion from a medical
source who regularly treats the claimant is afforded more
weight than that from a source who has examined the claimant
but does not have an ongoing treatment
relationship. In other words, “[t]he regulations
provide progressively more rigorous tests for weighing
opinions as the ties between the source of the opinion and
the individual become weaker.” Opinions from nontreating
sources are not assessed for controlling weight. Instead,
these opinions are weighed based on specialization,
consistency, supportability, and any other factors
“which tend to support or contradict the opinion”
may be considered in assessing any type of medical
opinion. State agency consultants are highly
qualified specialists who are also experts in the Social
Security disability programs, and their opinions may be
entitled to great weight if the evidence supports their
present case, substantial evidence supports the weight given
to the medical evidence and opinions in the record and the
evaluation of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity.
The ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff could perform a
full range of work at all exertional levels but with certain
nonexertional limitations, and Plaintiff has failed to show
that she is otherwise more limited.
showed improvement with medication and therapy.
Plaintiff's treatment notes dating from October 2011
through October 2012, including those from Ms.
Alexander-Jowers, reflect generally normal mental status
examination findings. Although Plaintiff experienced
familial and financial stress during this time period, the
mental status examination findings did not reflect
significant mental symptoms. Treatment records document
Plaintiff's appearance as neat, and her behavior was
noted to be appropriate with normal or “appropriate
thought processes and content. Given these generally benign
clinical observations, the ALJ could properly conclude that
the objective medical evidence did not support disabling
objects to the little weight given to Ms.
Alexander-Jowers's letter stating that Plaintiff
“possesses the [sic] difficulty with obtaining stable
employment due to her present mental
ability.” The ALJ discredited Ms.
Alexander-Jowers's opinion because she was not an
acceptable medical source and because the letter was
conclusory and inconsistent with the other evidence in the
record as a whole. For example, Plaintiff had recently
completed her GED and independently cared for her three
children, she worked a part-time job during the time period
she claims she was disabled, Plaintiff's treatment notes
were relatively benign, and she ...