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Graham v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

March 23, 2015



STEPHEN C. RIEDLINGER, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Dianna Marie Graham 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"), denying her claim for disability and supplemental security income ("SSI") 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 is affirmed.

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; (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.

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. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. 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; 416.925. The criteria in the medical listings are demanding and stringent. Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994).

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 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 cannot in fact perform that work. Boyd, 239 F.3d at 705.

Background and Claims of Error

Plaintiff was 40 years old at the time of the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision.[1] Plaintiff attended school through the eighth grade and her past relevant work consisted of employment as a cashier, stocker, construction and paper mill worker, hotel housekeeper, and food server. AR pp. 33-36, 151, 165-71. Plaintiff stated in her application that she became disabled and no longer able to work beginning August 10, 2010 due to HIV/Aids and emphysema. AR pp. 120-150.

After her applications were 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. 14-56. The ALJ found at the second step that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) induced headaches. AR p. 19. 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 stated that the evidence failed to document the medical findings necessary to satisfy the requirements of Listing 3.02 (Chronic pulmonary insufficiency) or Listing 3.03 (Asthma). The ALJ then evaluated the plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine whether, despite her severe impairments, the plaintiff was able to do any of her past relevant work or other work in the national economy.[2] The ALJ found the plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in the regulations, [3] except that the plaintiff could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Plaintiff also had to avoid unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery and avoid concentrated exposure to gases, fumes, and other pulmonary irritants. AR pp. 21, 54.

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 her past relevant work.[4] 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, namely, work as an order caller, callout operator or surveillance system monitor. Therefore, the ALJ concluded at the fifth step that the plaintiff is not disabled. AR pp. 24-25, 53-55.

In her appeal memorandum the plaintiff argued that the following errors require reversal and remand under sentence four of § 405(g): (1) the ALJ erred by failing to consider whether the plaintiff met the requirements of Listing 14.08k; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to find the plaintiff's headaches and peripheral neuropathy are severe impairments; (3) the ALJ erred by ignoring the vocational expert's response to an expanded hypothetical incorporating a limitation resulting from the side effects of HIV treatment - headaches, nausea, vomiting and peripheral ...

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