United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana
VALENCIA P. BREAUX,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.
RICHARD L. BOURGEOIS, Jr., Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Valencia P. Breaux (Plaintiff), seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (R. Doc. 1). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income "under Title XIX of the Social Security Act." (Tr. 141-46). For the reasons given below, the Court ORDERS that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED and Plaintiff's appeal be DISMISSED with prejudice.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On January 13, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income benefits. (Tr. 141-46). Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled on December 14, 2010 due to back problems, facet joint deterioration, anxiety and depression. (Tr. 72, 415). The claim was initially denied and Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing that was held on June 19, 2012. (Tr. 29-62). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 33-56). Thomas Mungall, a Vocational Expert (VE), also provided testimony. (Tr. 56-60). An unfavorable decision was rendered by the Commissioner, through the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), on August 15, 2012. (Tr. 13-23). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability since January 13, 2011, the application date. (Tr. 13). Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on October 21, 2013. (Tr. 1-6). The ALJ's decision rested as the final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 ("The Appeals Council's decision, or the decision of the administrative law judge if the request for review is denied, is binding unless you... file an action in Federal district court...."). The ALJ's final decision is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. of N.Y. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (defining "substantial evidence" in the context of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 160(e))). The Fifth Circuit has further held that substantial evidence "must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no substantial evidence will be found only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence." Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner "and not the courts to resolve." Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990). The court may not reweigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. See, e.g., Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994) ("This is so because substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but more than a scintilla."); Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988) ("we must carefully scrutinize the record to determine if, in fact, such evidence is present; at the same time, however, we may neither reweigh the evidence in the record nor substitute our judgment for the Secretary's"); Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988) (same).
If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, then it is conclusive and must be upheld. Estate of Morris v. Shalala, 207 F.3d 744, 745 (5th Cir. 2000). If the Commissioner fails to apply the correct legal standards, or fails to 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. 1987).
III. ALJ'S DETERMINATION
In determining disability, the Commissioner (through an ALJ) works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The burden rests upon the claimant throughout the first four steps of this five-step process to prove disability. If the claimant is successful in sustaining his or her burden at each of the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991) (explaining the five-step process). First, the claimant must prove he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove his or her impairment is "severe" in that it "significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three the ALJ must conclude the claimant is disabled if he proves that his or her impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments contained in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d) (step three of sequential process); 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (Listing of Impairments). Fourth, the claimant bears the burden of proving he is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
If the claimant is successful at all four of the preceding steps then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience, that he or she is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(g)(1). If the Commissioner proves other work exists which the claimant can perform, the claimant is given the chance to prove that he or she cannot, in fact, perform that work. Muse, 925 F.2d at 789.
Here, after reviewing the evidence contained in the administrative record, the ALJ made the following determinations:
1. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 13, 2011, the protective filing date.
2. Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: status post anterior cervical disc fusion, low back pain, obesity, depression, anxiety, ...