United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
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 Barbara Carter Forest 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 July 1, 2010, alleging disability beginning on June 12, 2009. Docket 9, p. 80, 137-44. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on October 20, 2010, and upon reconsideration on November 18, 2010. Id. at 84-86, 88-91. She filed a request for hearing ( Id. at 93) and was represented by counsel at the hearing held on February 23, 2012. Id. at 24-76. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on April 27, 2012 ( Id. at 9-23), and on April 2, 2013, 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 May 8, 1961 and has a twelfth grade education. Docket 9, p. 137, 167. She was 49 years old at the time of her application and fifty years old at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff's past relevant work was as an cashier, office worker, packager, and private sitter. Id. at 167. Plaintiff contends that she became disabled before her application for disability as a result of hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome, and "no feeling in left hand." Docket 9, p. 166. The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered from "severe" impairment[s] of "carpal tunnel syndrome status post-release, obesity and essential hypertension" (Docket 9, p. 15), but that the 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 16. 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
perform light work... except that the claimant's work activities must be consistent with the following criteria: ability to stand/walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; ability to sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; no more than occasional push/pull activities; and no more than frequent handling, fingering, or feeling.
Docket 9, 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 20. The ALJ evaluated all of the evidence in the record, including testimony of both plaintiff and a VE at the hearing, and held that plaintiff could perform her previous jobs of a cashier, office worker and private sitter. Id. The ALJ further concluded that in addition to being able to perform her past jobs, there are other jobs existing in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. Id. at 21. As a result, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at 23.
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by improperly evaluating plaintiff's credibility, failing to afford proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician and improperly applying the Medical Vocational Guidelines. Docket 16.
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).
A. Did the ALJ afforded proper weight to the opinions of her treating physician?
Plaintiff claims the ALJ failed to perform the analysis required by Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 456 (5th Cir. 2000) in weighing Dr. Patel's opinions, and that if the ALJ had re-contacted Dr. Patel to ask him to explain any inconsistencies, she would have assigned more weight to his opinion. Docket 16, p. 7-15. Plaintiff urges application of the Sixth Circuit's "good reasons" standard, which requires an ALJ to provide "good reasons... supported by the evidence in the case record, for the weight it decides to give to the treating source's opinion." Docket 16, p. 12, citing Hunt v. Commissioner of Social Security, 500 Fed.Appx. 411, 418 (6th Cir. 2012). The court finds that the ALJ properly weighed Dr. ...