United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division
JOSEPH B. BOXIE, JR.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
PATRICK J. HANNA, Magistrate Judge.
Before the court is an appeal of the Commissioner's finding of August 22, 2011. Considering the administrative record, the briefs of the parties, and the applicable law, it is recommended that the case be reversed and remanded.
BACKGROUND AND COMMISSIONER'S FINDINGS
Joseph Boxie 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 October 15, 2010, alleging disability beginning January 14, 2010 due to a low back injury. [Tr. 138]. The claim was initially denied, and Boxie filed a written request for hearing, which was granted. The hearing was held on July 21, 2011, and a decision was issued by Administrative Law Judge Kim A. Fields, denying the claim on August 22, 2011. [Tr. 18]. Boxie sought review by the Appeals Council which denied his request on October 25, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final administrative decision. On December 31, 2012, Boxie 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]
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). This 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 at 452.
Disability is defined in the Social Security regulations 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." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). Substantial gainful activity is defined as work activity involving significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §404.1572(a)-(b).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ 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 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005); 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 ALJ determines that the claimant is disabled at any step, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
If the ALJ cannot make a determination at any step, he goes on to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). 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 CFR § 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 CFR § 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 698, 705 (5th Cir. 2001); 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 ALJ 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 impairments. Satterwhite v. Barnhart, 44 Fed.Appx. 652(5th Cir. 2002)(unpublished).
Impairments that remain constant at all levels of exertion form an important part of residual functional capacity. These impairments are called non-exertional impairments, because the claimant suffers these impairments constantly, whether or not he exerts himself. Allergies are non-exertional impairments, and may be severe. Intolerance to stress may also be a non-exertional impairment. Side effects from medications have also been included as non-exertional impairments. ...