United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
S. ALLAN ALEXANDER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Vanessa Marie Richardson has applied under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for period of disability (POD), disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Sections 216(I) and 223 of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI. Docket 8, p. 139-147. Richardson filed her applications on November 23, 2010, asserting an onset date of April 3, 2009. Docket 8, p. 139, 141. Her onset date was later amended to July 17, 2010. Docket 8, p. 49. The Commissioner denied her claim initially and on reconsideration. Docket 11, pp. 76-89, 92-95.
Plaintiff challenged the denial of benefits and filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Docket 8, pp. 99-100. She was represented by an attorney at the administrative hearing on July 2, 2012. Docket 8, p. 42-75. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 24, 2013. Docket 8, p. 19-28. The Appeals Council denied her request for review. Docket 8, p. 1-5. 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 December 22, 1972 and was thirty-nine years old on the date of the ALJ's hearing decision. She completed high school and one year of college. Docket 8, p. 48. She was previously employed as a truck loader and plane de-icer. Docket 8, p. 48. She claimed disability due to "bad pain in left knee due to surgery." Docket 8, pp. 169.
The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffers from "severe" impairments of left knee osteoarthritis. Docket 8, p. 21, Finding No. 3. Despite finding she had a severe impairment, 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 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). Docket 8, p.22, Finding No. 4. Relying on the evidence in the record, including hospital records, physical therapy records and treatment notes from Dr. Pravinchandra P. Patel, M.D., along with the plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity [RFC] to
lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk four hours in an eight-hour workday; sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; she could never climb, kneel, crawl, and could occasionally balance, stoop, and crouch; and she must never work around heights and moving machinery.
Docket 8, pp. 22-23, Finding No. 5. The ALJ found the plaintiff's subjective complaints less than fully credible and that her allegations of stringent functional limitations were greatly disproportionate to the objective medical evidence. Docket 8, pp. 26.
Relying on the answers to written interrogatories from a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ held that plaintiff's "severe" impairments prevented her from returning successfully to her past relevant work. Docket 8, p. 26, Finding No. 6; pp. 201-206. The ALJ then found that considering the plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the plaintiff is capable of performing. Docket 8, p. 26-27, Finding No. 10. Examples of these jobs included a surveillance system monitor, laminator and final assembler. Docket 8, p. 26. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. Docket 8, p. 27. Finding No. 11.
The plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Docket 8, p. 15. After reviewing the record, including medical records from Mississippi Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine and a prescription for Voltaren and Synvisc-One which plaintiff submitted as new evidence, the Appeals Council found there was no basis for changing the ALJ's decision and denied plaintiff's request for review. Docket 8, p. 2. Plaintiff now appeals to this court claiming (1) the ALJ failed to fully develop the record by not requesting a consultative examination; (2) his RFC was improper and not supported by substantial evidence; (3) he erred in finding the plaintiff was less than fully credible; (4) he mischaracterized plaintiff's testimony concerning her functional capabilities; and (5) the Appeals Council erred when it concluded plaintiff's new evidence was not material and declined to remand to the ALJ. Docket 14.
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). 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. ALJ's Duty to Fully Develop the Record
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have further developed the record by ordering a consultative examination to confirm plaintiff's testimony that her left knee surgery and physical therapy both "failed" and that she is in severe pain and virtually unable to bend her knee. Docket 14, pp. 7-9. However, plaintiff's own uncorroborated, subjective statements and complaints are insufficient ...