United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division
S. ALLAN ALEXANDER, Magistrate Judge.
This case involves an application under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the application of plaintiff Michael Keith Ryan for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This District Court's jurisdiction over plaintiff's claim rests upon 28 U.S.C. § 1331. In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636 (c), both parties consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct all proceedings in this case, including an order for entry of a final judgment. Therefore, the undersigned has authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment.
Plaintiff protectively filed his application for disability benefits on February 17, 2011. Docket 6, pp. 118-124. His alleged onset date is April 2, 2010. Id. at p. 118. He claims he is disabled due to depression, high blood pressure, a plate and screws in his hip, leg numbness and back problems. Docket 6, p. 155. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. at pp. 67-69, 75-85. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 62-63. The hearing was held on September 6, 2012, in Tupelo, Mississippi before ALJ Rebecca B. Sartor. Id. at 28. Plaintiff appeared and was represented by attorney Thomas H. Comer, Jr. In addition to the plaintiff's testimony, a vocational expert (VE), Barbara Holmes, testified at the hearing. Id. On September 14, 2012, the ALJ issued her decision denying plaintiff's claim. Docket 6, pp. 9-22. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which was denied on August 18, 2007. Id. at pp. 7-8, 1-3. The Appeals Council's denial of the petition for review perfected the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. It is now ripe for the court's review.
Plaintiff was born on September 17, 1985. Docket 6, p. 151. He was twenty-four years old on his alleged disability onset date and twenty-six on the date of the Commissioner's final decision. Id. He has a high school education, and his previous employment included material handler, HVAC helper, cashier, and stock clerk. Id. at 36, 156. He alleges that he became disabled due to depression, high blood pressure, a plate and screws in his hip, leg numbness and back problems. Id. Plaintiff is approximately six feet tall, and his weight has fluctuated between 245 and 330 pounds. Id. at 37, 155.
At the hearing, the plaintiff testified that he had an automobile accident in April 2010 which resulted in a fractured hip that had to be surgically repaired and a displaced kneecap. Docket 6, pp. 40-41. As a result of the accident, plaintiff was hospitalized for two weeks and then bedridden for approximately 6 months. Id. at 40. Medical records show that plaintiff was treated at the Med in Memphis immediately following the accident and then at Campbell Clinic in Collierville, TN for several months after the accident for follow-up. Docket 6, pp. 229-250, 251-285. He has been seen by Dr. Sloan at the Easy Care Clinic in Corinth, MS at the request of his attorney for an evaluation relating to his impairment, prognosis, and possible future medical treatment. Docket 6, pp. 286-304, 399-425, 452-458, 490-533, 546-562. In July 2011, Dr. Sloan indicated that plaintiff complained of shortness of breath and diagnosed him with mild COPD, yet Spirometry testing showed plaintiff had minimal obstructive lung defect. Id. at 412. Dr. Sloan's June 20, 2012 record indicates plaintiff had gained weight and on that date weighed 330 pounds. Id. at 412 & 550. On January 6, 2011, Dr. Sloan completed a Medical Source Statement opining that plaintiff had a "permanent disability." Id. at 560. The record also contains a report from state agency medical consultant Dr. Culpepper, who reviewed the available medical evidence and found that although plaintiff had some residual soreness, pain and restrictions in his right hip, he retained the physical residual functional capacity [RFC] to perform light work. Docket 6, pp. 439-446.
In her decision, the ALJ found that the plaintiff suffered from "severe" impairments of "degenerative joint disease resulting from injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)." Docket 6, p. 14, Finding No. 3. However, after review of all the evidence and the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), she held that these impairments, singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1526). Docket 6, p. 17, Finding No. 4. The ALJ considered the record as a whole and determined the plaintiff retained the RFC to
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant can lift/carry and push/pull up to 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. He can sit for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour day and stand/walk for a total of 6 hours in an 8 hour day. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolding. He can occasionally balance. Despite his mental limitations, the claimant can occasionally interact with co-workers, occasionally perform work related decision-making tasks and adjust adequately and appropriately to occasional changes in the workplace. He can sustain attention, concentration and pace sufficiently to perform routine, repetitive tasks, but should avoid working at jobs requiring a strict production pace.
Docket 6, pp. 18-19, Finding No. 5. Using this RFC and considering plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, in addition to relying to the testimony of a VE, the ALJ found that the plaintiff was capable of performing other work and therefore was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. Docket 6, pp.21-22. Plaintiff argues that if one considers all of his impairments and symptoms collectively, the ALJ erred, and the decision should be remanded for further consideration because her determination is not supported by substantial evidence, she did not consider plaintiff's obesity as required by SSR 02-1p, she incorrectly discounted treating physician Dr. Sloan's medical assessment and she did not properly consider "other work" the plaintiff could perform at step five of the evaluation process.
1. Substantial Evidence
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. Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). "To be substantial, evidence must be relevant and sufficient for a reasonable mind to accept it as adequate to support a conclusion; it must be more than a scintilla but it need not be a preponderance...." Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 633 (5th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted). "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 (1971)). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide, and if substantial evidence is found to support the decision, the decision 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 may not re-weigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner,  even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by the evidence, then it is conclusive and must be upheld. Paul v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 208, 210 (5th Cir. 1994).
In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. The burden rests upon the plaintiff throughout the first four steps of this five-step process to prove disability, and if the plaintiff is successful in sustaining his burden at each of the first four levels, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five. First, the plaintiff must prove he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Second, the Commissioner considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairment. At step three the ALJ must conclude the 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, §§ 1.00-114.02 (1998). Fourth, the Commissioner considers their assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity, and the claimant bears the burden of proving he is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of his past relevant work. If the plaintiff is successful at all four of the preceding steps the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering ...