United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana
MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT
STEPHEN C. RIESDLINGER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Charles Edward Dye 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 his 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; (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 50 years old at the time of the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision. Plaintiff went to school through the ninth grade, and had been employed in the past as a hotel front desk clerk, tool pusher supervisor and a truck driver. AR pp. 32, 144, 156-58, 164, 175-78, 191. In his applications for disability and SSI benefits, the plaintiff alleged that as of December 31, 2009 he was disabled and no longer able to work because of a back disorder and degenerative disc disease. AR pp. 119-28. Plaintiff's back impairment was a result of a fall he sustained on the job in February 1985. The injury required multiple back surgeries and the plaintiff could not return to work until 1990. AR pp. 35-37, 243, 271.
Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial stages. Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing, after which the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR pp. 80, 15-61. The ALJ found at the second step that the plaintiff had a combination of severe impairments - obesity,  and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post open reduction internal fixation surgery. AR p. 18. At the third step the ALJ concluded the plaintiff's combination of severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity any listed impairment at step three. AR pp. 18-19.
The ALJ then evaluated the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine whether, despite his severe impairments, the plaintiff was able to do any of his past relevant work or other work in the national economy. The ALJ found that the plaintiff had the ability to perform light work, except that the plaintiff had several postural limitations and other nonexertional limitations. AR p. 19. Given this RFC, and based on the testimony of vocational expert Harris Rowzie, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was able to engage in his past relevant work as a front desk clerk as it is actually and generally performed in the national economy. AR pp. 22-23. However, the ALJ also made an alternative finding at step five. Considering the plaintiff's age, education and work experience and RFC, the ALJ again relied on Rowzie's vocational testimony and found that the plaintiff would be able to make a successful adjustment to other work as a cashier, and this job exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Therefore, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that the plaintiff was not disabled. AR pp. 22-24, 56-58.
Plaintiff argued that numerous administrative errors require reversal and remand under sentence four of § 405(g). With regard to the ALJ's RFC finding, the plaintiff argued: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated his credibility and the ALJ's credibility finding was not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Ben Yarbrough; and, (3) these errors resulted in an RFC finding that is not supported by substantial evidence. With regard to the vocational evidence relied on by the ALJ, the plaintiff argued it was not reliable or sufficient to support the ALJ's findings at the fourth and fifth steps of the disability analysis. Plaintiff also argued his claim should be remanded to the Commissioner under the second clause of sentence six ...