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Storm v. Saul

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

July 9, 2019





         Before the court is plaintiff's 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 AFFIRMED, and this matter DISMISSED with prejudice.

         Background & Procedural History

         Christin Marie Storm filed the instant applications for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income payments on July 9, 2015. (Tr. 12, 168-182).[1] She alleged disability as of January 1, 2015, because of lupus SLE, kidney disease/failure, reactive airway disease, depression, anxiety, chronic joint pain, chronic muscle pain, joint swelling, insomnia, and extreme fatigue. (Tr. 204, 208). The state agency denied the claims at the initial stage of the administrative process. (Tr. 65-92). Thereafter, Storm requested and received a December 15, 2016, hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 27-63). However, in a February 1, 2017, written decision, the ALJ determined that Storm 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. 9-22). Storm sought review of the adverse decision before the Appeals Council. On December 19, 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 February 15, 2018, Storm filed the instant complaint for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. She asserts the following errors:

1) The Commissioner's decision applied an incorrect legal standard by relying on determinations by the ALJ which gave more weight to the opinions of non-examining DDS reviewing sources than to those of the consultative examiners and of the treating sources.
2) The Commissioner's findings are the product of “cherry-picking” by the Administrative Law Judge on issues of disability, ignoring portions of the record which are consistent with Ms. Storm's testimony and medically determinable impairments, thus fairly detracting from the substantiality of evidence supporting the Commissioner's findings, so that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence.
3) The Commissioner's findings are also the product of misstatement and mischaracterization by the ALJ of the evidence so that the decision to deny benefits is not supported by substantial evidence.

         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. Bowen, 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)(ii).

         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 C.F.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 C.F.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” may be 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. 14-15).[1] At step two, she found that the claimant suffers severe impairments of lupus with lupus nephritis, fibromyalgia, and obesity. (Tr. 15-16).[2] She 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. 17).

         II. Residual Functional Capacity

         The ALJ next determined that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of light work. (Tr. 17-21).[3]

         III. Steps Four and Five

         At step four, the ALJ determined that the claimant had no past relevant work. (Tr. 21). Accordingly, she proceeded to step five. At this step, the ALJ determined that the claimant was a younger individual, with at least a high school education, and the ability to communicate in English. (Tr. 21). Transferability of skills was not at issue because the claimant had no past relevant work. Id.

         The ALJ then observed that, given the claimant's vocational factors, and the ability to perform the full range of light work, the Medical-Vocational Guidelines directed a finding of not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569; Rule 202.20, Table 2, Appendix 2, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. (Tr. 21-22).

         Non-Exhaustive Chronology of Relevant Medical Evidence

         On July 19, 2013, Storm was seen by nurse practitioner, Erika Spencer. (Tr. 321-323). Storm wanted her kidneys checked, and medication refills. Id.

         On August 14, 2013, Storm was seen at University Health-Shreveport by Seth Berney, M.D. (Tr. 325-327). She reported no weight loss or gain. Id. She experienced joint stiffness for two hours. Id. She had a trichophyton on her right arm. Id. She was not photosensitive to the sun. Id. She had achy muscle pain, headaches, and occasional confusion. Id. Upon examination, she had multiple tattoos, but no rashes. Id. Berney suspected that plaintiff had SLE, and was awaiting biopsy results from Arkansas Children's Hospital. Id. He was concerned that she had OSA, given her symptoms, snoring, and size. Id.

         On October 7, 2013, Storm was seen by David Williams, Ph.D., for a psychiatric and diagnostic evaluation at the request of the state agency for purposes of her 2013 disability application. (Tr. 273-280). Storm's chief complaints were lupus and kidney disease, secondary to lupus. Id. She was diagnosed with lupus in 2006. Id. Stress increased her symptoms and she recently had started a new job. Id. In 2008, she experienced symptoms of depression following the death of her fiancée. Id. She denied current symptoms of depression. Id. She reported having some close friends. Id. Storm had experienced symptoms of daily anxiety with onset at the age of 15. Id. She recounted experiencing panic attacks every two to three months. Id. She smoked marijuana daily, but last used a few months earlier. Id.

         Williams diagnosed anxiety disorder and assigned a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 61, which indicated mild symptoms. Id.[2] Storm's understanding remained intact. Id. Her concentration, pace, and persistence were adequate. Id. She was able to manage her own finances. Id.

         On November 20, 2013, Storm returned to Dr. Berney at University Health-Shreveport. (Tr. 327-330). She had joint stiffness for 30 minutes, and slight nausea, without vomiting from stress about her job. Id. She had lower back and neck pain. Id. She reported that she used illicit drugs, and had multiple tattoos, without rashes. Id.

         On February 19, 2014, Storm was seen by Dr. Berney, who was concerned that she had OSA, but her PCP refused to refer her for a sleep study. (Tr. 330-333). Accordingly, Dr. Berney referred her himself. Id. Storm's pelvic pain had resolved. Id.

         On March 12, 2014, Storm was seen by nurse practitioner, Carrie Genusa, for rash, easy bruising, cough, and medication refills. (Tr. 318-320). Storm believed that her rash and bruising were caused by her lupus. Id. She complained of myalgia muscle aches all over her body. Id. Upon examination, Storm had a very mild spotty rash that was resolving. Id.

         On April 1, 2014, Storm returned to Genusa for cough, shortness of breath, ...

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