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Simmons v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

November 3, 2014



STEPHEN C. RIEDLINGER, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Shantel H. Simmons brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits ("SSI").

Based on the applicable standard of review and the analysis which follows, the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.

Standard of Review

Under § 405(g), judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner denying disability and SSI benefits is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether substantial evidence exists in the record as a whole to support the Commissioner's findings, and (2) whether the Commissioner's final decision applies the proper legal standards. Myers v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 617, 619 (5th Cir. 2001); Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings, they are conclusive and must be affirmed. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is that which is relevant and sufficient for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It is more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994); Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 131, 135 (5th Cir. 2000). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision. Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001). In applying the substantial evidence standard the court must review the entire record as whole, but may not reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if the evidence weighs against the Commissioner's decision. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner and not the court to resolve. Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002).

If the Commissioner fails to apply the correct legal standards, or provide a reviewing court with a sufficient basis to determine that the correct legal principles were followed, it is grounds for reversal. Bradley v. Bowen, 809 F.2d 1054, 1057 (5th Cir. 1981); Western v. Harris, 633 F.2d 1204, 1206 (5th Cir. 1981); Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).

A claimant has the burden of proving that he or she suffers from a disability, which is defined as a medically determinable physical or mental impairment lasting at least 12 months that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505; 416.905. The regulations require the ALJ to apply a five step sequential evaluation to each claim for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§, 404.1520; 416.920. In the five step sequence used to evaluate claims the Commissioner must determine whether: (1) the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment(s); (3) the impairment(s) meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of the regulations;[1] (4) the impairment(s) prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work; and, (5) the impairment(s) prevents the claimant from doing any other work. Masterson, 309 F.3d at 271.

The burden of proving disability rests on the claimant through the first four steps. At the fourth step the Commissioner analyzes whether the claimant can do any of his past relevant work. If the claimant shows at step four that he is no longer capable of performing past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is able to engage in some type of alternative work that exists in the national economy. Myers, supra. If the Commissioner meets this burden the claimant must then show that he cannot in fact perform that work. Boyd, 239 F.3d at 705.

Background and Claims of Error

Plaintiff was 34 years old at the time of the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision.[2] Plaintiff went to high school through the tenth grade, and also received training as a certified nurse's assistant. AR pp. 155, 183. Before applying for disability benefits, the plaintiff had been employed in numerous different jobs - candy packer, cook, deli worker, cashier, line worker at a chicken processing plant, nurse's assistant, and selfemployed cosmetologist. AR pp. 39-44, 183, 198-205. In her applications for disability and SSI benefits, the plaintiff alleged that she was disabled and no longer able to work in August 2010 as a result of multiple impairments - a sleep disorder, high blood pressure, numbness in her hands and feet, headaches, and lower back pain. AR pp. 41, 44-48, 182.

After her application was denied at the initial stages, the plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing after which the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR pp. 13-64.[3] The ALJ found at the second step that the plaintiff had a combination of severe impairments - essential hypertension, obesity, [4] neuropathy of the left ulnar nerve, idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, sleep apnea, and migraines.[5] AR p. 18. At the third step the ALJ specifically considered two categories of listed impairments related to the plaintiff's conditions, and also considered the plaintiff's obesity and hypertension as required by the regulations. AR p. 20. The ALJ concluded the plaintiff's combination of severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity any listed impairment at step three.[6]

The ALJ then evaluated the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine whether, despite her severe impairments, the plaintiff was able to do any of her past relevant work or other work in the national economy.[7] The ALJ found that the plaintiff had the ability to perform light work, except that she could never squat, or climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, perform handling with both hands, and frequently balance.[8] AR p. 61. Given this RFC, and based on the testimony of vocational expert Patricia Knight, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not able to engage in any past relevant work. AR p. 23. However, considering Knight's expert testimony that the plaintiff would be able to make a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy - counter clerk and usher, at the fifth step the ALJ found that the plaintiff was not disabled.[9]

In her appeal memorandum the plaintiff argued the following administrative errors require reversal and remand under sentence four of 405(g): (1) without good cause and in violation of the regulations, the ALJ rejected the opinion of her treating physician Dr. Charles Genovese; (2) the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to include limitations/restrictions related to two of the plaintiff's severe impairments - sleep apnea and migraines; and (3) because the RFC lacked ...

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