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McDaniel v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

January 29, 2014

KRISTIN LYNN McDANIEL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

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 Kristin Lynn McDaniel for period of disability or disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Section 216(I) and 223 of the Social Security Act, as well as for supplemental security income payments under Section 1614(a)(3) of the Act. Plaintiff protectively applied for disability insurance benefits on March 29, 2010, alleging that she became disabled on June 1, 2005. Docket 8, p. 141. The plaintiff's claim was denied initially on June 1, 2010 ( Id. at 67-71) and on reconsideration on March 9, 2011. Id. at 77-79. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held on June 26, 2012 ( Id. at 27), and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 11, 2012. Id. at 9-21. Plaintiff requested and was denied review by the Appeals Council via letter on April 1, 2013. Id. at 1-3. She timely filed this appeal from the Commissioner's most recent decision. In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to have a magistrate judge conduct all the proceedings in this case, the undersigned therefore has the authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment.

I. FACTS

The plaintiff was born on December 24, 1979, and was 25 years old at the time of her amended onset date. She participated in special education classes and completed the seventh grade.[1] Id. at 34. She contends that she became disabled on June 1, 2005 as a result of "lower back problems and spurs on feet." Id. at 176.

The ALJ determined that the plaintiff suffered from "severe" impairments including "anxiety disorder not otherwise specified and depressive disorder not otherwise specified, " but that these impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in 20 CFR Part, Subpart P, App. 1, (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). Docket 8, p. 14-16. The ALJ found that the plaintiff retains the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is limited to simple routine repetitive tasks. She is not able to perform any production rate tasks but can perform goal-oriented tasks. She may only have occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors. She is limited to few, if any, changes in a workplace environment.

Id. at 17. In light of testimony by a vocational expert [VE] at the hearing, the ALJ found plaintiff capable of performing her past work as a cashier II, and therefore not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at 20-21.

Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred by not properly considering plaintiff's degenerative disc disease and chronic pain syndrome as severe, failing to consider those impairments in combination with her obesity in assessing her RFC and in not properly considering the opinions of plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Sharma.

The court concludes that the ALJ did not properly consider plaintiff's impairments and combination of impairments, and his opinion is therefore unsupported by substantial evidence. In light of these conclusions, the court need not address the remaining claims of error.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process.[2] 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.[3] First, plaintiff must prove she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.[4] Second, plaintiff must prove her impairment is "severe" in that it "significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...."[5] 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).[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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 has the responsibility to 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). The court has limited power of review and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, [10] even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision.[11] 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).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have found that her degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and chronic pain syndrome were severe impairments and should have considered the effect of her obesity in combination with her other impairments. The failure to do so, says plaintiff, resulted in an ultimate decision regarding plaintiff's disability that is unsupported by the evidence. Docket 12, p. 19. It is the Commissioner's position that the ALJ appropriately determined that plaintiff's degenerative disc disease and back pain were not severe because there were no objective findings to support a finding of severity [Docket 16, p. 7-8] and that ...


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