United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana
MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT
STEPHEN C. RIEDLINGER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Lance Jones brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") that denied his claim for disability insurance benefits.
Based on the standard of judicial review under § 405(g), a careful review of the entire administrative record as a whole, and the analysis that follows, the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.
Standard of Review
Under § 405(g), judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner denying disability 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. Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014); 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). Thus, on judicial review the Commissioner's decision is granted great deference, and the decision will not be disturbed unless the court cannot find substantial evidence in the record to support it, or the court finds an error of law was made. Leggett v. Chater, 67 f.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995).
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. The regulations require the ALJ to apply a five step sequential evaluation to each claim for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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; (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.
At step three, listed impairments are descriptions of various physical and mental illnesses and abnormalities generally characterized by the body system they affect. Each impairment is defined in terms of several specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test results. For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listed impairment he must demonstrate that it meets all of the medical criteria specified in the listing. An impairment that exhibits only some of the criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 529-32, 110 S.Ct. 885, 891-92 (1990); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. If the ALJ determines that the claimant's impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumed to be disabled and qualifies for benefits without further inquiry. Loza v. Apfel, 219 F.3d 378, 390 (5th Cir. 2000).
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 his past relevant work. If the claimant shows at step four that he or 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 he or she cannot in fact perform that work. Boyd, 239 F.3d at 705.
Background and Claims of Error
Plaintiff was 26 years old at the time of the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision. Plaintiff graduated from high school, and his past relevant work consisted of employment in product sales and as a store manager of a convenience store/gas station, and an assistant manager of a fast food restaurant. AR pp. 51-59, 170-71. At the time of the administrative hearing the plaintiff was attending Baton Rouge Community College on a full-time basis. Plaintiff stated that he was enrolled in paralegal studies, which is a two year degree program. Plaintiff also testified that he attended the first semester part-time, completed nine hours, and earned all A's in his courses. Plaintiff stated that when he later attended full-time he was had more trouble focusing and completing his work. Although he did not have all A's, he was not failing any classes. AR pp. 49-51. In his application for disability benefits, the plaintiff alleged that he became disabled and no longer able to work as of January 21, 2011 because of severe anxiety disorder, depression and low back injury. AR pp. 149, 169.
After his application was denied at the initial stages the plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. The hearing was held and after it the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR pp. 23-87. The ALJ found at the second step that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments - generalized anxiety disorder, obesity, and hypertension. AR p. 25. At the third step the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff's combination of severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairment. The ALJ considered the plaintiff's argument that the paragraph A criteria of Listings 12.03 (Schizophrenia, Paranoid and Other Psychotic Disorders), 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders) and 12.07 (Somatoform Disorders) were met, but found his argument was unsupported with regard to Listings 12.03 and 12.07. Although the ALJ found the paragraph A criteria for Listing 12.06 were met, she determined that the evidence did not show the plaintiff had the level of limitations needed to satisfy the paragraph B criteria for this listed impairment. AR pp. 26-28.
The ALJ then evaluated the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine whether, despite his severe impairments, the plaintiff was able to do any of his past relevant work or other work in the national economy. The ALJ found the plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in the regulations,  except that the plaintiff was limited to unskilled work that is routine with few changes in the work process and does not involve production quotas or time limits. AR p. 28.
Given this RFC and based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff would not be able to perform any of his past relevant work. However, based on the plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ again relied on the expert's testimony and found that the plaintiff would be able to make a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy - price marker and laundry worker. Therefore, the ALJ concluded at the fifth step that the plaintiff is not disabled. AR pp. 32-34, 74-82.
In his appeal memorandum the plaintiff argued that the following errors require reversal and remand under sentence four of § 405 (g): (1) the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal standard at step three in determining whether his impairments met or equaled Listing 12.03, 12.06 or 12.07; (2) the ALJ failed to apply the appropriate legal standards in rejecting the opinions of treating psychiatrist Dr. Anupama Atluri; and, (3) the Appeals Council failed to adequately consider new and material evidence that was properly submitted with the request for review.
The ALJ applied the proper legal standards at step three and the findings at this step are supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff argued it was error for the ALJ to refuse to consider Listings 12.03 and 12.07, when the evidence in fact showed that he satisfied the Part A criteria of these listed impairments. Plaintiff also argued that in finding his mental impairment did not satisfy the Part B criteria of Listing 12.06, the ALJ ignored relevant evidence, and the isolated evidence on which she relied does not meet the substantial evidence test.
Review of the record as a whole demonstrates that this claim of error is without merit.
Listing 12.03 defines the criteria for a listed impairment designated as "Schizophrenic, Paranoid and Other Psychotic Disorders." Paragraph A of this ...