United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
PATRICK J. HANNA, Magistrate Judge.
Before the court is an appeal of the Commissioner's finding of March 22, 2013. Considering the administrative record, the briefs of the parties, and the applicable law, it is recommended that the determination be affirmed.
Background and Commissioner's Findings
Lloyd Valere filed applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on November 28, 2007, alleging disability beginning November 1, 2007. The claim was initially denied, and Valere filed a timely written request for hearing, which was granted. The hearing was held on June 15, 2009, and a decision was issued by Administrative Law Judge Emery D. Curlee, denying the claim on September 17, 2009. [Tr. 18]. Valere sought review by the Appeals Council which, by Order on January 13, 2011, vacated the ALJ decision and remanded the case for further action, including a supplemental hearing.
Another hearing was held in August, 2011, before ALJ Robert Grant. On October 24, 2011, the ALJ again denied the claim. Valere again sought review in the Appeals Council which again vacated the ALJ decision and remanded the case for further action, including another hearing. A third hearing was held on March 1, 2013, again before ALJ Grant. After consideration of all the evidence and testimony, in a decision issued March 22, 2013, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, concluding that Valere was disabled through December 13, 2011, but that a substance abuse disorder was a contributing factor material to that disability. [Tr. 19]. With assistance from a medical expert, the ALJ further found that as of December 14, 2011, Valere's residual impairments medically equaled a listed impairment under the Regulations. At that time, substance abuse was no longer material to his disability. [Tr. 19]. Valere again sought review, but the Appeals Council denied his request on June 26, 2013, making the ALJ decision the Commissioner's final administrative decision. On August 30, 2013, Valere filed the instant Complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the ALJ decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). [Rec. Doc. 1]
ASSIGNMENT OF ERRORS
Valere asserts that (1) the ALJ erred in finding that prior to December 14, 2011, the claimant's sole severe impairment was a substance abuse disorder, as he failed to properly identify all of his severe impairments prior to that date; (2)the ALJ failed to properly consider the combined effects and limitations of all of the claimant's severe impairments throughout the sequential evaluation process; and (3) the ALJ failed to evaluate whether Valere's cervical disc disease and spinal stenosis were disabling regardless of his substance abuse disorder, per Social Security Ruling 12-3p. [Rec. Doc. 16, p. 6].
APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS AND SCOPE OF REVIEW
Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security in which he was a party may obtain a review of the decision by a civil action. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether that decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied in reaching that decision. Alfred v. Barnhart, 181 Fed.App'x 447, 449 (5th Cir. 2006); Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001). In making that determination, 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, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. 42 U.S.C.A. §405(g).
The ALJ is entitled to make any finding that is supported by substantial evidence, regardless whether other conclusions are also permissible, and any findings of fact by the Commissioner that are supported by substantial evidence are conclusive and must be affirmed. Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461(5th Cir. 2005); Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995).
Substantial evidence' is such relevant evidence as a responsible mind might accept to support a conclusion; it is more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance. Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d at 704; 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 at 704. Finding substantial evidence does not involve a search of the record for isolated bits of evidence that support the Commissioner's decision; instead, the entire record must be scrutinized as a whole. Singletary v. Bowen, 798 F.2d at 823. In applying this standard, the court may not re-weigh the evidence in the record, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if the evidence weighs against the Commissioner's decision. Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d at 704; Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d at 135; Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452(5th Cir. 2000). To determine whether the decision to deny social security benefits is supported by substantial evidence, the court weighs the following factors: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions from treating and examining physicians; (3) plaintiff's subjective evidence of pain and disability, and any corroboration by family and neighbors; and (4) plaintiff's age, educational background, and work history. 42 U.S.C.A. §405; Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995). Any conflicts in the evidence regarding the claimant's alleged disability are to be resolved by the administrative law judge, not the reviewing court. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452(5th Cir. 2000).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential analysis, which requires analysis of the following: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity (i.e., whether the claimant is working); (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1; (4) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work (i.e., whether the claimant can return to his old job); and (5) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d at 461; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271-72 (5th Cir. 2002); Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d at 453. See, also, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
If the Commissioner determines that the claimant is disabled at any step, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the Commissioner cannot make a determination at any step, he goes on to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). When assessing a claim for disability benefits in the third step, the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment is compared to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525, 110 S.Ct. 885, 107 L.Ed.2d 967(1990). If the claimant is not actually working and his impairments match or are equivalent to one of the listed impairments, the Commissioner is required to "consider the combined effect of all of the individual's impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(B). The medical findings of the combined impairments are compared to the listed impairment most similar to the claimant's most severe impairment. See Zebley, 493 U.S. at 531, 110 S.Ct. 885. It is the claimant's burden to prove at step three that his impairment or combination of impairments matches or is equivalent to a listed impairment. Id. at 530-31. For a claimant to demonstrate that his disorder matches an Appendix 1 listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of the specified criteria, no matter how severe, does not qualify. Id. Ultimately, the question of equivalence is an issue reserved for the Commissioner. Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 364 (5th Cir. 1993).
Before going from step three to step four, the Commissioner assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4). The claimant's residual functional capacity assessment is a determination of the most the claimant can still do despite his physical and mental limitations and is based on all relevant evidence in the claimant's record. 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(1). The claimant's residual functional capacity is used at the fourth step to determine if the claimant can still do his past relevant work, and at the fifth step, it is used to determine whether the claimant can adjust to any other type of work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). When a claimant's residual functional capacity is not sufficient to permit him to continue his former work, then his age, education, and work experience must be considered in evaluating whether he is capable of performing any other work. Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d at 705; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The testimony of a vocational expert is valuable in this regard, as such expert "is familiar with the specific requirements of a particular occupation, including working conditions and the attributes and skills needed." Fields v. Bowen, 805 F.2d 1168, 1170 (5th Cir. 1986); see also Vaughan v. Shalala, 58 F.3d 129, 132 (5th Cir. 1995).
The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and then the burden shifts to the Commissioner on the fifth step to show that the claimant can perform other substantial work in the national economy. If the Commissioner makes the necessary showing at step five, the burden shifts back to the claimant to rebut this finding. Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d at 461; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d at 272; Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d at 453.
When a mental disability claim is made, such as bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, the Commissioner utilizes a corollary sequential procedure for determining the merits of the claim. Essentially, this procedure substitutes specialized rules at Step 2 for determining whether a mental impairment is severe, and also provides detailed guidelines for making the Step 3 determination as to whether the mental impairment meets or exceeds the Listings. The regulations require:
[T]he ALJ to identify specifically the claimant's mental impairments, rate the degree of functional limitation resulting from each in four broad functional areas, and determine the severity of each impairment. Furthermore, §404.1520(a)(e) provides that the ALJ must document his application of this technique to the claimant's mental ...