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Collins v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

February 24, 2015



STEPHEN C. RIEDLINGER, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Loruhamah Eve Collins 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 a careful review of the entire administrative record as a whole, the standard of judicial review under § 405(g) and the analysis that follows, the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and remanded.

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 her past relevant work. If the claimant shows at step four that she 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 she cannot in fact perform that work. Boyd, 239 F.3d at 705.

Background and Claims of Error

Plaintiff was 28 years old at the time of the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision.[2] Plaintiff completed the 11th grade, and also completed a personal care assistant training course. Plaintiff's past employment consisted of work as a cashier, customer sales representative, hairstylist and home health care personal care assistant. AR pp. 117-20, 124-39, 153. In her applications for disability and SSI benefits filed in October 2010, the plaintiff alleged that she became disabled and no longer able to work beginning on September 5, 2010 when she sustained second and third degree burns to ten percent of her body, involving both hands and both lower extremities. These burns resulted in the plaintiff undergoing surgery for skin grafts on September 17, 2010. Thereafter, the plaintiff underwent several months of physical therapy. AR pp. 188-215, 284-323.

After her application was denied at the initial administrative stages, the plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing after which the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR pp. 12-72. The ALJ first considered the plaintiff's work after the alleged onset of her disability, and determined that this work activity did not meet the level of substantial gainful activity. AR pp. 14, 33, 36-38. The ALJ then made a finding that the plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: second degree burns of the hands and legs, depression, anxiety and asthma. At the second step the ALJ considered the evidence relevant to these impairments and made the following finding:

The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments (20 CFR 404.1521 et seq. and 416.921 et seq.

Thus, the ALJ found the plaintiff was not disabled at the second step and terminated her analysis and did not consider or make any findings under steps three (listing of impairments), four (ability to do past relevant work), or five (ability to perform other work in the national economy).[3] AR p. 14-19.

Plaintiff argued that under sentence four of § 405(g) several errors at the administrative level require reversal and remand for reevaluation of her disability claim: (1) the ALJ referred to the standard announced in Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099 (5th Cir. 1985), but failed to comply with the substantive requirements of Stone; (2) despite the existence of objective medical evidence that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms she complained of, the ALJ improperly rejected them and found her not fully credible; and, (3) without good cause and without giving good reasons, the ...

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