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Roark v. Saul

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

July 23, 2019

JAMIE S. ROARK
v.
ANDREW SAUL, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

          TERRY A. DOUGHTY JUDGE.

          REPORT & RECOMMENDATION

          KAREN L. HAYES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         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 REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         Background & Procedural History

         Jamie Roark filed the instant application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on June 4, 2015. (Tr. 17, 119-120). She alleged disability as of April 30, 2014, because of a back injury, and chronic back and hip pain. (Tr. 129, 133). The state agency denied the claim at the initial stage of the administrative process. (Tr. 49-62). Thereafter, Roark requested and received a January 25, 2017, hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 28-48). However, in a June 9, 2017, written decision, the ALJ determined that Roark was not disabled under the Social Security Act, finding at step four of the sequential evaluation process that she was able to return to her past relevant work as an account executive and a graphic designer. (Tr. 14-23). Roark appealed the adverse decision to the Appeals Council. On April 6, 2018, however, the Appeals Council denied Roark's request for review; thus the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3).

         On June 4, 2018, Roark sought review before this court. She asserts several assignments of error, which may be recharacterized as follows:

1) The ALJ's step two finding that the claimant's shoulder impairment was not severe because “it has not been present for 12 continuous months” is a misapplication of the duration requirement and, as such, cannot be sustained;
2) For various reasons, the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination is not supported by substantial evidence; and
3) The ALJ's step four finding that the claimant can return to her past relevant work as an account executive and graphic designer is not supported by substantial evidence.

         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 ...


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