TAWANNA R. GRIFFIN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
S. ALLAN ALEXANDER, Magistrate Judge.
This case involves an application under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the application of plaintiff Tawanna R. Griffin for a period of disability (POD) and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Sections 216(I) and 223 of the Social Security Act and for supplemental security income (SSI) payments under Section 1614(a)(3) of the Act. Plaintiff protectively applied for disability on November 30, 2009 alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2007. Docket 5, p. 184. At the hearing, plaintiff amended her onset date to November 30, 2009. Id. at 67. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on March 18, 2010, and upon reconsideration on May 5, 2010. Id. at 108-09. She filed a request for hearing and was represented by counsel at the hearing held on July 27, 2011. Id. at 129, 64-87. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on August 18, 2011 ( Id. at 12-21), and on September 13, 2011, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review. Id. at 1-3. Plaintiff timely filed the instant appeal from the ALJ's most recent decision, and it is now ripe for review.
Because both parties have consented to have a magistrate judge conduct all the proceedings in this case as provided in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the undersigned has the authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment.
Plaintiff was born on February 4, 1979 and has a twelfth grade special education certificate. Docket # 5, p. 68. She was 32 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff's past relevant work was as a sandwich maker, housekeeper, cashier, chair tester, material tagger, and baker. Id. at 68, 83-84. Her previous application for benefits had been denied on November 6, 2009. Id. at 88-101. Plaintiff contends that she became disabled before her application for disability as a result of "sleep apnea, diabetes, [high blood pressure], congestive heart failure, asthma, and hidradenitis suppurativa. Docket 5, p. 200. The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered from "severe" impairments including "diabetes, asthma, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, edema, and obesity' (Docket 5, p. 14), but that these impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 4165.926). Id. at 15. Based upon testimony by the vocational expert [VE] at the hearing and after considering the record as a whole, the ALJ determined that plaintiff retains the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to
lift 10 lbs., sit throughout the day, and stand for a total of 2 hours during the day on an intermittent basis. The claimant also cannot reach overhead; cannot kneel, crawl, or squat; and requires an environment that does not contain excessive amounts of dust, chemicals, noxious fumes, or irritants of that nature.
Docket 5, p. 16. Upon further analysis under applicable rulings and regulations, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was less than fully credible in describing her claimed symptoms, limitations and subjective complaints - particularly concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms. Id. at 21-22. After evaluating all of the evidence in the record, including testimony of both plaintiff and a VE at the hearing, the ALJ held that plaintiff could perform the jobs of a cutter and paster and a lampshade assembler. Id. at 20. As a result, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id.
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by improperly evaluating plaintiff's credibility, which resulted in an erroneous assessment of her RFC and, ultimately, an unsupported determination that she was not disabled at Step 5. Docket 11.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. The burden rests upon plaintiff throughout the first four steps of this five-step process to prove disability, and if plaintiff is successful in sustaining her burden at each of the first four levels, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. First, plaintiff must prove she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Second, plaintiff must prove her impairment is "severe" in that it "significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." At step three the ALJ must conclude plaintiff is disabled if she proves that her impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.09 (2010). If plaintiff does not meet this burden, at step four she must prove that she is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience, that she is capable of performing other work. If the Commissioner proves other work exists which plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is given the chance to prove that she cannot, in fact, perform that work.
The court considers on appeal whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the correct legal standard. Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 196 (5th Cir. 1999); citing Austin v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1170 (5th Cir. 1993); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied in reviewing the claim. Ransom v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 989, 992 (5th Cir. 1983). A federal court has limited power of review and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner,  even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision. The Fifth Circuit has held that substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197 (5th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide, and if there is substantial evidence to support the decision, it must be affirmed even if there is evidence on the other side. Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990). The court's inquiry is whether the record, as a whole, provides sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions of the ALJ. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). "If supported by substantial evidence, the decision of the [Commissioner] is conclusive and must be affirmed." Paul v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 208, 210 (5th Cir. 1994), citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's choice to afford little weight to her allegations and complaints, specifically her complaints of edema and pitting in her lower extremities, resulted in his reaching an erroneous RFC. Docket 11, p. 12. She asserts that the ALJ improperly considered her allegations concerning "the swelling of her feet, her legs, and ankles with chronic edema and pain" that results in plaintiff being "unable to stand for 15 minutes without interruption and would not be able to sit for 30 minutes at a time without interruption." Id. at p. 11. The Commissioner responds that the inconsistencies in plaintiff's own testimony support the weight assigned to plaintiff's credibility and ...