United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
LINDA R. ANDERSON, Magistrate Judge.
Ollie Cain, proceeding pro se, appeals the final decision denying his Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. The Commissioner requests an order pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), affirming the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge. Having carefully considered the hearing transcript, the medical records in evidence, and all the applicable law, the undersigned recommends that the decision be affirmed for the reasons that follow.
Factual and Procedural Background
On April 20, 2010, Cain protectively applied for disability benefits alleging that he became disabled on January 1, 1996, due to migraines. He was 56 years old at the time of the filing, and is a high-school graduate, with previous work experience as a USAF aerospace-medic, mail-handler, clinic-clerk, machine-operator, and inventory specialist. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff appealed the denial, and following two administrative hearings, Administrative Law Judge W. Stephen Hubbard ("ALJ") rendered an unfavorable decision on January 24, 2012, finding that Plaintiff had not established a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and he now appeals that decision.
After reviewing the evidence, the ALJ determined at step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date, January 1, 1996, though his date of last insured, December 31, 1997. At step two, the ALJ found that although Plaintiff's intractable migraines were a medically determinable impairment, they were not medically severe through his date last insured. Brunson v. Astrue, 387 F. Appx 459, 460 (5th Cir. 2010). Based on the evidence as a whole, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff failed to establish a disability under the Social Security Act before his insured status expired.
Plaintiff does not assert any specific assignments of error on appeal, but generally contends that the ALJ erred in denying his application for benefits. Liberally construed, Plaintiff asserts that he has suffered from chronic debilitating headaches daily since 1996. The condition is allegedly so severe that it is unrelieved by medication and has made it impossible for him to secure employment. He also asserts that the neurological and psychological bases of his debilitating migraines were never presented for the ALJ's consideration because his legal counsel failed to submit a complete copy of his medical records. He specifically maintains that counsel failed to submit any "documentation from a treating physician thoroughly explaining my condition and inability to work." In support, he submits an unauthenticated letter addressed to him from Dr. Erik Undesser of the VA Medical Center, dated November 26, 2013, advising that Plaintiff suffers from intractable migraine headaches that preclude him from returning to work. The doctor specifically advises as follows:
Mr. Ollie Cain has been a patient of the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery VA Medical Center since 2007. He has been diagnosed with Migraine headaches that are intractable. He has been trialled on preventative medications that brought him minimal relief or were intolerable due to side effects. He remains on Neurontin and pain medications which brings minimal relief. He has a continuous headache with exacerbation daily. He has to go bed daily for his headaches due to debility, nausea, vomiting, light and noise sensitivity and pain. He has tried to work, and due to his headache condition, he has been unable to keep sustainable employment since 2006. Due to his condition, and that his prognosis is poor for improvement, he is unable to work.
The Court, having carefully considered each of these and other arguments raised by Plaintiff on appeal, finds substantial evidence supports the denial of benefits in this case.
This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to two basic inquiries: "(1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the [ALJ's] decision; and (2) whether the decision comports with relevant legal standards." Brock v. Chater, 84 F.3d 726, 728 (5th Cir. 1996) (citing Carrier v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d 243, 245 (5th Cir. 1991)). Evidence is substantial if it is "relevant and sufficient for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it must be more than a scintilla, but it need not be a preponderance." Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995) (quoting Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992)). This Court may not re-weigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, even if it finds evidence that preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994).
A claimant's entitlement to disability benefits hinges on whether he can establish his inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of [a] medically determinable physical or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id. at 435 (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d)(1)(A)). The Commissioner reviews the evidence of disability offered by the claimant and evaluates the evidence by using a sequential evaluation. The burden of proof on the first four steps falls on the claimant; the burden of proof on the last step - whether a claimant can perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy - rests with the Commissioner. Significantly, the Commissioner only has the burden of proof at step five, while the claimant has the burden of making the threshold showing that the impairment is medically severe at step two. An impairment is not severe "only if it is a slight abnormality [having] such minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience." Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir. 1985) (quotation omitted).
Applying the severity standards set forth in Stone and 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1521 and 416.921, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that were medically severe during the relevant period. In making this determination, the ALJ considered both the objective medical evidence and Plaintiff's subjective complaints. The ALJ found that while Plaintiff's impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms, his statements regarding their intensity, persistence, and limiting effects did not credibly establish that they were medically severe. When a claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, or limiting effects of symptoms are not supported by objective evidence, the ALJ has the discretion to make a finding on their credibility. Foster v. Astrue, 277 F.Appx. 462 (5th Cir. 2008). The ALJ's determination is entitled to considerable deference and is supported by substantial evidence here.
Plaintiff testified that he has not worked in over 15 years because he experiences debilitating headaches on a daily basis three times per day. The headaches are reportedly so severe that they cause short-term memory loss, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light. Although he takes prescription medication, Plaintiff testified that the medication causes similar side effects and provides relief only after about 30 minutes, if at all. He also testified that his daily activities have been limited since 1995, explaining that he only cleans and washes dishes, though he is still able to drive.
Yet, as noted by the ALJ, Plaintiff's medical records prior to his date last insured, indicate that his intractable migraines were only slight abnormalities having such a minimal effect that they would not be expected to interfere with the ability to perform basic work activities. Records from the VA Medical Center indicate that Plaintiff's treatment for intractable migraines largely began in 2000, as noted by the ALJ, "well beyond the date of last insured for Title II benefits." The only medical evidence during the relevant time period shows that Plaintiff was treated for cluster headaches twice on June 23, 1996. At that time, Plaintiff reported that he had not had a headache in three years. Treatment records indicate that he was given Demerol, which provided "significant relief, " and that his visual changes resolved. Plaintiff also reported the he was "feeling much better." Medical records reflect only two follow-up treatments for a headache-related impairment. In the first follow-up three days later, Plaintiff reported no symptoms. In the second follow-up in July 1996, Plaintiff reported only "some [headache] pain" in his left temporal ...