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Pouncy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Shreveport Division

August 9, 2018


          KAREN L. HAYES Judge


          ELIZABETH E. FOOTE MAG. Judge


         The Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge having been considered, no objections thereto having been filed, and finding that same is supported by the law and the record in this matter, IT IS ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and REMANDED pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent therewith.



         Before the court is plaintiffs petition for review of the Commissioner's denial of social security disability benefits. The district court referred the matter to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for proposed findings of fact and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and (C). For the reasons assigned below, it is recommended that the decision of the Commissioner be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         Background & Procedural History

         Valerie Nicole Pouncy filed the instant applications for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income payments on April 25 and June 12, 2014, respectively. (Tr. 15, 203-217).[1] She alleged disability as of November 1, 2013, because of vertigo and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 228, 232). The state agency denied the claims at the initial stage of the administrative process. (Tr. 114-141). Thereafter, Pouncy requested and received an April 28, 2015, hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT"). (Tr. 39-113). However, in a January 20, 2016, written decision, the ALJ determined that Pouncy was not disabled under the Social Security Act, finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process that she was able to make an adjustment to work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 12-25). Pouncy sought review of the adverse decision before the Appeals Council. On February 10, 2017, however, the Appeals Council denied the request for review; thus the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3).

         On April 6, 2017, Pouncy filed the instant complaint for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. She asserts the following errors:

1) For various reasons, the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by substantial evidence; and
2) The ALJ's step five determination is flawed because he relied upon an incomplete hypothetical to the vocational expert.

         The matter is fully briefed and ripe.

         Standard of Review

         This court's standard of review is (1) whether substantial evidence of record supports the ALJ's determination, and (2) whether the decision comports with relevant legal standards. Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the findings therein are conclusive and must be affirmed. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence when the decision is reached by applying improper legal standards. Singletary v. Bowen, 798 F.2d 818 (5th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. at 401. Substantial evidence lies somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance. Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991). A finding of no substantial evidence is proper when no credible medical findings or evidence support the ALJ's determination. Johnson v. Bo wen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988). The reviewing court may not reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, (5th Cir. 1994).

         Determination of Disability

         Pursuant to the Social Security Act ("SSA"), individuals who contribute to the program throughout their lives are entitled to payment of insurance benefits if they suffer from a physical or mental disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D). The SSA defines a disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Based on a claimant's age, education, and work experience, the SSA utilizes a broad definition of substantial gainful employment that is not restricted by a claimant's previous form of work or the availability of other acceptable forms of work. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Furthermore, a disability may be based on the combined effect of multiple impairments which, if considered individually, would not be of the requisite severity under the SSA. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(h).

         The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process that the agency uses to determine whether a claimant is disabled under the SSA. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The steps are as follows,

(1) An individual who is performing substantial gainful activity will not be found disabled regardless of medical findings.
(2) An individual who does not have a "severe impairment" of the requisite duration will not be found disabled.
(3) An individual whose impairment(s) meets or equals a listed impairment in [20 CF.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1] will be considered disabled without the consideration of vocational factors.
(4) If an individual's residual functional capacity is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then a finding of "not disabled" will be made.
(5) If an individual is unable to perform past relevant work, then other factors including age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine whether the individual can make an adjustment to other work in the economy.

See Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 -705 (5th Cir. 2001); 20 CF.R. § 404.1520.

         The claimant bears the burden of proving a disability under the first four steps of the analysis; under the fifth step, however, the Commissioner must show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy and is therefore not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987). When a finding of "disabled" or "not disabled" maybe made at any step, the process is terminated. Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1022 (5th Cir. 1990). If at any point during the five-step review the claimant is found to be disabled or not disabled, that finding is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987).

         ALJ's Findings

         I. Steps One, Two, and Three

         The ALJ determined at step one of the sequential evaluation process that the claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. (Tr. 17). At step two, he found that the claimant suffers severe impairments of diabetes, degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 17-18).[2] He concluded, however, that the impairments were not severe enough to meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4, at step three of the process. (Tr. 18-19).

         II. Residual Functional Capacity

         The ALJ next determined that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, [3] with occasional climbing ramps/stairs, balancing, kneeling; no climbing ladders and scaffolds, stooping, crouching, or crawling; no exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, operating motor vehicles, or working around open bodies of water. She was further limited to simple, routine tasks, and with regard to the use of judgment and dealing with changes in the work setting she was limited to simple work-related decisions, with no jobs exceeding an SVP level of 2. She also requires a sit/stand option at will to make postural changes to adjust to symptoms. ...

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