United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
For Dorethia Spearman, Plaintiff: Micah B. Dutro, LEAD ATTORNEY, THOMAS U. REYNOLDS LAW FIRM, Charleston, MS; Thomas Upton Reynolds, II, LEAD ATTORNEY, THOMAS UPTON REYNOLDS, II, ATTORNEY, Charleston, MS.
For Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: John Evans Gough, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE - Oxford, Oxford, MS.
S. Allan Alexander, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Dorethia Spearman has filed an appeal under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision ceasing her entitlement to disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Section 223(f) of the Social Security Act. In a decision dated January 25, 2006, the Social Security Administration initially determined that plaintiff was disabled by the medically determinable impairment of depression and entitled to DIB as of January 25, 2003. Docket 7, p. 250, 252. On June 16, 2011, Commissioner performed a routine continuing disability review of plaintiff's disability and determined medical improvement had occurred, and plaintiff was no longer disabled as of June 1, 2011. Id. at 255. Upon request for reconsideration, the Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) upheld the Commissioner's decision [Docket 12, p. 3], and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 25, 2014. Docket 7, p. 7. Plaintiff then timely appealed to this court for review. Docket 1.
Because both parties have consented to having 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 October 15, 1962. Docket 7, p. 274. The most recent favorable decision finding plaintiff was disabled [the " Comparison Point Decision" ] is the decision dated January 25, 2006. Id. at 312-17. At the time of this Comparison Point Decision, plaintiff, who was then 43 years old, was granted period of disability (" POD" ) and DIB retroactively from January, 25, 2003. See id. at 250. The impairment which led to her disability status in 2006 was " major depression, recurrent, severe with psychotic features." Id. at 316. After plaintiff received DIB for several years, the Social Security Administration conducted a continuing disability review to evaluate whether plaintiff continued to suffer from her original disability. Id. at 324-28. The continuing disability review resulted in a finding that plaintiff was no longer disabled as of June 1, 2011. Id. On December 13, 2013, the ALJ held that plaintiff's disability -- and therefore her entitlement to DIB and POD -- terminated as of June 1, 2011. Id. at 263.
The ALJ's review of a decision to terminate DIB requires an eight-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594. Through the use of this process, the ALJ made several findings. Docket 7, p. 251-63. At the same time he found that plaintiff had experienced medical improvement as of June 1, 2011 [ Id. at 255], the ALJ also determined plaintiff suffers from the medically determinable impairments of " disorders of the spine, depression, folliculitis, dermatitis, mirgraine headache[s], pharyngitis, hypertension, vitamin D deficiency, eczema, and anxiety disorders," but that those impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. § § 404.1525 and 404.1526). Docket 7, p. 252-53. Relying upon vocational expert [VE] testimony and the record as a whole, the ALJ determined plaintiff retains the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to
lift, carry, push, or pull 20 lbs. occasionally and 10 lbs. frequently and to stand, walk, or sit for 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. The claimant also can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally stoop; can perform routine and repetitive tasks; and can perform work that requires occasional decision-making.
Id. at 258. The ALJ went on to find that plaintiff could perform the jobs of a buttoner, a burr grinder, or a stuffer and consequently " was capable of making a successful adjustment to work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy." Id. at 263. In reaching his decision, the ALJ assigned significance to suspected malingering in the claimant's medical records during cognitive function testing by a consultative psychological examiner. Id. at 255-261. On February 25, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision [ id. at 7-11], thus making the ALJ's decision the final administrative decision for purposes of judicial review. Id. at 15-33.
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred by substituting his own judgment for that of medical experts and by drawing improper inferences from plaintiff's lack of mental health treatment without properly investigating the circumstances. Docket 12, p. 3-4.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
It is well settled that this court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to two inquiries: " (1) whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard." Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005); see also 42 U.S.C. 405(g); Ransom v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 989, 992 (5th Cir. 1983). 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); see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971).
The Fifth Circuit has further stated that substantial evidence, " must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but 'no substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a 'conspicuous absence of credible choices' or 'no contrary medical evidence.'" Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988), quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983). Thus, this court may not overturn the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence -- " more than a mere scintilla" -- and correctly applies the law. Morris v. Shalala, 207 F.3d 744, 745 (5th Cir. 2001); see also Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 292 (5th Cir. 1992).
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, Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988), even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994); Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475. ...