United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DANIEL E. KNOWLES, III, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). The matter has been fully briefed on cross-motions for summary judgment and is ripe for review. For the following reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be DENIED, the Commissioner's cross-motion be GRANTED, and plaintiff's case be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
Plaintiff filed a protective application for DIB on July 30, 2011 and an application for SSI on December 9, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2011. (Adm. Rec. at 156-62, 163-68). Plaintiff alleges disability due to minimal change disease, high blood pressure, depression, multiple sclerosis, chronic asthma, leg pain and numbness, sleep apnea, and a pinched nerve in her back. (Id. at 71, 193, 221). Plaintiff, born on September 6, 1979, was 31 years old on the date on which she alleged disability and 33 years old at the time of the final administrative decision. (Id. at 190). Plaintiff completed one year of college. (Id. at 194). Plaintiff has past work experience as a store manager, cashier supervisor, cashier, and delicatessen attendant. (Id. at 21).
Defendant initially denied plaintiff's application on April 5, 2012. (Id. at 87-90). Plaintiff sought an administrative hearing, which defendant held on October 18, 2012. (Id. at 28-70). Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE"), Thomas Meunier, testified at the hearing.
On January 25, 2013, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued a decision in which she found that plaintiff had not been disabled through the date of the decision. (Id. at 11-23). In the decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, hypertension, obesity, anxiety, and major depressive disorder. (Id. at 13). The ALJ held that plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets or medically equals a listed impairment under the regulations. (Id. at 14). The ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except that she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. (Id. at 16-17). She further concluded that plaintiff must avoid even moderate exposure to pulmonary irritants. (Id. at 17). The ALJ noted that mentally, she is capable of work that is simple, repetitive, and routine and that involves minimal changes in the work setting. (Id. ) Lastly, she found that while plaintiff can work in proximity to others, contact and interaction with others should be on an occasional basis. (Id. ). The ALJ concluded that plaintiff can not perform her past relevant work but that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, namely that of janitor, housekeeper, and cafeteria attendant. (Id. at 21-22). The ALJ thus denied plaintiff DIB and SSI. (Id. at 23).
Plaintiff asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's conclusion that she is not disabled. (Id. at 153). On January 7, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request. (Id. at 1-6). Plaintiff then timely filed this civil action.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The function of a district court on judicial review is limited to determining whether there is "substantial evidence" in the record, as a whole, to support the final decision of the Commissioner as trier of fact, and whether the Commissioner applied the appropriate legal standards to evaluate the evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir.1999); Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir.1995); Carriere v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d 243, 245 (5th Cir.1991). If the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, this Court must affirm them. Martinez, 64 F.3d at 173.
"Substantial evidence" is that which is relevant and sufficient for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401(1971); Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002). It is more than a scintilla, but may be less than a preponderance. Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir.1993). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings exist to support the Commissioner's decision. See Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2002).
A district court may not try the issues de novo, re-weigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 131, 135 (5th Cir. 2000); Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir.1995); Spellman, 1 F.3d at 360. The Commissioner is entitled to make any finding that is supported by substantial evidence, regardless of whether other conclusions are also permissible. See Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. 91, 112-13 (1992). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, not the courts. Carey, 230 F.3d at 135. Any of the Commissioner's findings of fact that are supported by substantial evidence are conclusive. Ripley, 67 F.3d at 555. Despite this Court's limited function on review, the Court must scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached and whether substantial evidence exists to support it. Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir.1992); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1022 (5th Cir.1990).
III. ENTITLEMENT TO BENEFITS UNDER THE ACT
To be considered disabled and eligible for disability benefits under the Act, plaintiff must show that he is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered disabled only if his physical or mental impairment is so severe that he is unable to do not only his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education and work experience, participate in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the area in which he lives, whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(B). The Commissioner has promulgated regulations that provide procedures for evaluating a claim and determining disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1501 - 404.1599 & Appendices, §§ 416.901t-416.988 (1995). The regulations include a five-step evaluation process for determining whether an impairment prevents a person from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Id. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir.1994).
In Shave v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 592 (5th Cir. 2001), the Fifth Circuit restated the five-step procedure to make a disability determination under the Social Security Act:
The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." To determine whether a claimant is disabled, and thus entitled to disability benefits, a five-step analysis is employed. First, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity. Second, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe. An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" if it "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Third, the claimant's impairment must meet or equal an impairment listed in the appendix to the regulations. Fourth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from returning to his past relevant work. Fifth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any relevant work, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience. At steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to show he is disabled. If the claimant acquits this responsibility, at step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there is other gainful employment the claimant is capable of performing in spite of his existing impairments. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant must then prove he in fact cannot perform the alternate work.
Shave, 238 F.3d at 594 (quoting Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197-98 (5th Cir.1999)). If the ALJ determines that a plaintiff is not disabled under Step V of the five-part test, the ALJ must establish that the claimant has a "residual functional capacity, " given the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, to perform other work available in the national economy. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 n.11 (5th Cir. 1995). Step V ...