United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division
JAMES H. YORK, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SSA, 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 applications of plaintiff James York for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI. Docket 8, p. 149-156. York filed his applications on December 23, 2010, asserting an onset date of July 20, 2010. Docket 8, p. 149, 151. The Commissioner denied his claim initially and on reconsideration. Docket 8, pp. 75-78, 94-101. Plaintiff challenged the denial of benefits and filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Docket 8, pp. 102. He was represented by an attorney at the administrative hearing on July 17, 2012. Docket 8, p. 36-55. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 10, 2012. Docket 8, p. 16-30. The Appeals Council denied his request for review. Docket 8, p. 6-11. Plaintiff filed the instant appeal, and it is now ripe for review. Because both parties have consented to have a magistrate judge conduct all the proceedings in this case under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the undersigned has the authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment.
Plaintiff was born on October 5, 1962 and was forty-nine years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. Docket 8, p. 42. He dropped out of school in the 6th grade. Docket 8, p. 43. He stated at the hearing that he is able to read and write "just a little." Id. He was previously employed as a band saw operator, a medium exertional level, semi-skilled job. Docket 8, pp. 44, 50. He claimed disability due to "depression/anxiety, insomnia, hypertension; perifial [sic] artery disease, breathing problems, hepatitis C, liver problems, right knee surgery, cyst on arch of left foot, can't read or write very well, and depression" Docket 8, pp. 21, 178.
The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffers from "severe" impairments of hypertension, diabetes, hepatitis C, peripheral artery disease, right knee pain, shortness of breath, borderline intellectual functioning, dysthymia, general anxiety disorder, and an antisocial personality disorder. Docket 8, pp. 21-23. Despite finding he had these severe impairments, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. Docket 8, pp. 23-25, Finding No. 4. The ALJ examined the evidence in the record and the opinions of the plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Donald Smith, consultative examining physician Dr. Christopher Davis, non-examining state agency consultants Dr. Robert Culpepper and Dr. Vicki Prosser, and consultative examining psychologist, Dr. Joe Edward Morris, who performed a mental evaluation. This evidence, including the plaintiff's testimony and statements from plaintiff's friend Rita Sharp and his sister Kathy Sanders, led the ALJ to conclude that plaintiff's residual functional capacity [RFC] includes
occasionally lifting 50 pounds, frequently lifting 25 pounds, standing/walking for six hours, sitting for six hours, frequently climbing ramps and stairs, occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds and that he was limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers and the public and that he could adapt to only few, if any, changes in the workplace setting.
Docket 8, p. 25, Finding No. 5. In reaching this RFC decision the ALJ found the plaintiff's subjective complaints less than fully credible and that his allegations of stringent functional limitations were disproportionate to the objective medical evidence. Docket 8, pp. 21-22.
The ALJ found that even though this RFC left plaintiff unable to perform his past relevant work [Docket 8, p. 28, Finding No. 6], in light of testimony from a vocational expert (VE) and plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform, including janitor, DOT number 382.664-010; packager, DOT number 920.587-018; and chair assembler, DOT number 709.684-014. Docket 8, p. 29, Finding No. 10.
Plaintiff now appeals to this court claiming the ALJ's RFC for plaintiff is not supported by substantial evidence, resulting in his ultimate decision being unsupported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ erred in failing to "give good reason" for not granting controlling weight or deference to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician or to contact the treating physician to resolve any conflict, incompleteness or ambiguity with regard to the doctor's opinion. Docket 12.
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 his burden at each of the first four levels, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. First, plaintiff must prove he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Second, plaintiff must prove his impairment is "severe" in that it "significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." At step three, the ALJ must conclude plaintiff is disabled if he proves that his 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 he must prove that he is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of his 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 he 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 he 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). It is the court's responsibility to scrutinize the entire record to determine whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards 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 re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner,  even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision. In the Fifth Circuit 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 proper 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).
1. Substantial ...