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Morehead v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

August 14, 2017

BRENDA MOREHEAD
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          RULING AND ORDER DISMISSING SOCIAL SECURITY APPEAL

          RICHARTTL. BOURGEOIS, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Brenda Morehead (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. (R. Doc. 1). Having found all of the procedural prerequisites met (Tr. 1-4), the Court has properly reviewed Plaintiff's appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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…”). 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

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on August 23, 2013 alleging that she became disabled on January 4, 2011 because of a disabling condition, namely neck and back problems, asthma, panic attacks, anxiety, and peptostreptococcus infection (Tr. 157). Plaintiff's application was denied by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who first held an administrative hearing (Tr. 28-58) before issuing an unfavorable decision on December 3, 2014. (Tr. 12-27). Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 26, 2016. (Tr. 1-4). The ALJ's decision rested as the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         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) (quotations omitted). 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) (“In applying the substantial evidence standard, 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, on the other hand, 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'x 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, the ALJ made the following determinations:

1. Plaintiff had met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
2. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 4, 2011.
3. Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: residual effects of cervical and lumbar surgery, asthma/chronic bronchitis, depression, and anxiety.
4. Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment.
5. Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, except she is able to lift-carry 10 pounds occasionally, 5 pounds frequently; she is precluded from doing overhead work or work involving extreme range of motion of the neck; she is limited to only occasional interaction with the public and working with things, rather than people.
6. Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. Plaintiff was born on February 17, 1968 and was 42 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49 on the ...

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