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Brigido v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

February 15, 2019




         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“The Commissioner”) pursuant to Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner denied the request of Plaintiff, Amanda R. Brigido, (“Brigido”), for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423 and protectively for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) pursuant to Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 423.[1]

         I. Background

         Brigido is a forty-two-year-old, 260-pound, 5 foot 4 inches tall female who previously worked in housekeeping, as a packer, and with liquid containers. R. Doc. 8-3, Tr.101. On April 29, 2014, Brigido filed for a period of disability under Title II and SSI under Title XVI, alleging disability since March 5, 2013 for major depression disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, OCD, migraines, high blood pressure, and arthritis. R. Doc. 8, Tr. 19, 202, 206, 222 and 225.

         Brigido filed a written request for a hearing on October 23, 2014. R. Doc. 8-1, Tr. 119-121. Kerry Morgan, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), held a hearing on August 9, 2016. R. Doc. 8-4, Tr. 197. The ALJ denied Brigido's claim on September 6, 2016, finding that she was not disabled under the meaning of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). R. Doc. 8-2, Tr. 19-28.

         In her decision, the ALJ reviewed Brigido's claims pursuant to the five-step[2] analysis used to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Id., T. 20. Using this analysis, the ALJ found that Brigido met the insured status requirements of the SSA through December 31, 2016, and that she did not engage in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2014 (her alleged onset date). Id., Tr. 22. The ALJ further found that she suffered from the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, thoracic degenerative disc disease, chronic pain syndrome, obesity, depression, major depressive disorder without psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorder with obsessive compulsive disorder. Id.

         The ALJ also found that Brigido did not have an impairment, or combination thereof, that medically equaled the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and that would constitute a presumptive disability. Id., Tr. 23.

         The ALJ further found the Brigido has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in the regulations. Id., Tr. 23. However, the ALJ found that she could frequently climb ramps/stairs; occasionally bend, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. Id. The ALJ also held that Brigido could understand, remember and complete 1, 2, 3, and 4-step simple, detailed instructions and tasks; maintain attention, concentration, persistence, or pace in two-hour segments of time (with customary breaks between segments); tolerate occasional contact with the public; and infrequent changes in job duties. Finding 5, Rec. Doc, 8-2, Tr. 26.

         The ALJ further held that Brigido is capable of performing past relevant work as a hand packer and courier. Finding 6, Rec. Doc. 8-2, Tr. 26. The work, according to the ALJ, does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity. Id. Finally, the ALJ found that the claimant has not been under a disability from January 1, 2014 through the decision date or September 6, 2016. Finding 7, Rec. Doc. 8-2, 27-28.

         Brigido filed a complaint contending that the ALJ's decision was not based upon substantial evidence, because the ALJ: (1) impermissibly picked or chose to evaluate the evidence; (2) impermissibly relied only on her own medical opinion in determining a residual functional capacity for Brigido; (3) erred as a matter of law in deciding the case at Steps 4 and 5; (4) failed to support the residual functional a capacity evaluation and vocational evidentiary conclusions with substantial evidence; and (5) failed to properly conduct a Step 3 Listing evaluation. R. Doc. 16.

         The Commissioner positions that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding. R. Doc. 15. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ properly evaluated Bridigo's physical impairments, and properly developed the record. Id. The Commissioner also contends that the ALJ's alternative finding does not amount to legal error, because the ALJ properly relied on the vocational expert's description of Brigido's past relevant work and properly evaluated Brigido's impairments at Step Three. Id.

         II. Standard of Review

         Under Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the role of this Court on judicial review is limited to determining whether: (1) the final decision is supported by substantial evidence; and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards when evaluating the evidence. See Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999). The Court may not re-weigh the evidence, try issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Allen v. Schweiker, 642 F.2d 799, 800 (5th Cir. 1981). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive and must be affirmed. Houston v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1012, 1016 (5th Cir. 1989). However, an ALJ's failure to apply the correct legal test constitutes a ground for reversal. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and less than a preponderance, and is considered relevant such that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a conclusion. Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d, 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995); citing Richardson v Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no “substantial evidence” will be found where there is only a “conspicuous absence of credible choices” or “contrary medical evidence.” See Payne v. Weinberger, 480 F.2d 1006, 1007 (5th Cir. 1973); Hemphill v. Weinberger, 483 F.2d 1137, 1138 (5th Cir. 1973). Moreover, “a single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the ALJ ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence, particularly evidence offered by treating physicians.” Franklin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 122681, 2013 WL 5739078, at *2 (E.D. La. Oct. 22, 2013) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3rd Cir. 1983)).

         The ALJ must give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating physician if it is “well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with . . . other substantial evidence.” Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 456 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing 20 C.F.R.' 404.1527(c)(2)). However, “[t]he ALJ is free to reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.” Bradley v. Bowen, 809 F.2d 1054, 1057 (5th Cir. 1987). The ALJ must consider the following relevant criteria: (1) the physician's length of treatment of the claimant; (2) the physician's frequency of examination; (3) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (4) the support of the physician's opinion afforded by the medical evidence of record; (5) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; and (6) the specialization of the treating physician. See 20 C.F.R' 404.1527. “Good cause for abandoning the treating physician rule includes >disregarding statements [by the treating physician] that are brief and conclusory, not supported by medically acceptable clinical laboratory diagnostic techniques, or otherwise unsupported by evidence.” Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 566 (5th Cir. 1995).

         Where there is reliable medical evidence from a treating or examining physician that controverts the claimant's treating specialist, the ALJ may reject the opinion of the treating physician only if the ALJ performs a detailed analysis of the treating physician's views under 20 CFR 404.1527. See Newton, 209 F.3rd 448. Further, regardless of the opinions and diagnoses of medical sources, “the ALJ has sole responsibility for determining a claimant's disability status.” Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 173, 176 (5th Cir. 1995).

         Finally, the Court “weigh[s] four elements of proof when determining whether there is substantial evidence of disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) [the] diagnosis and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) [his] age, education, and work history.” Hendricks v. Apfel, No. 99-1212, 2000 WL 174884, at *3 (E.D. La. Feb. 14, 2000) (citing Martinez, 64 F.3d at 174).

         Disability is defined in the Social Security Act as the “inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted . . . for a constructive period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A). Section 423(d)(3) of the Act further defines “physical or mental impairment” as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological or psychological ...

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