United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division
S. ALLAN ALEXANDER, Magistrate Judge.
This case involves an application under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying plaintiff Donna Strawn Humble's application for a period of disability (POD) and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Docket 13. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on October 27, 2011, alleging disability beginning May 26, 2011. Docket 7, p. 135. The agency administratively denied her application initially on January 9, 2012 and upon reconsideration on February 10, 2012. Docket 7, p. 72-75, 79-81. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held on October 29, 2013. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on December 20, 2013 (Docket 7, p. 16-26), and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review on June 13, 2014, Docket 7, p. 5-7. Plaintiff timely filed the instant appeal from the decision and it is now ripe for review. Because both parties have consented to have a magistrate judge conduct all 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 May 11, 1965 and was 46-48 years old during the adjudication period at issue (May 26, 2011 through December 20, 2013). Docket 7, p. 26, 109. She completed the eleventh grade and later obtained her GED. Docket 7, p. 139. She was previously employed as an orderly and a store clerk. Docket 7, p. 24, 127-34, 139-40. Plaintiff contends she was unable to work during the adjudication period due to neuropathy, pain in her lower back that radiated down both legs, and debilitating depression that stemmed from her physical problems. Docket 7, p. 138, 147, 165, 179.
In evaluating plaintiff's disability claim, the ALJ proceeded through the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a); see also Docket 7, p. 16-26. Within that process, the ALJ determined that the claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. Docket 7, p. 18. Additionally, the ALJ determined that the claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Docket 7, p. 18. Also, the ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments such as "disorders of the spine, status post left elbow fractures, neuropathy, obesity, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and borderline intelligence." Docket 7, p. 18. Based on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore not disabled under the Social Security Act and denied benefits. Docket 7, p. 25.
The plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by misapplying regulations in considering the medical opinion of a psychologist, Dr. Joe Edward Morris, and by substituting his own opinion for that of a medical expert. Docket 11, p. 6, 8.
II. EVALUATION PROCESS
In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon plaintiff throughout the first four steps of this process to prove disability, and if plaintiff is successful in sustaining her burden at each of the first four levels, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1999). First, plaintiff must prove she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the plaintiff must prove her impairment(s) are "severe" in that they "significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). 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). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If plaintiff does not meet this burden, at step four she must prove she is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). 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. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(g). 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. See Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
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, 197 F.3d at 196 (citing Austin v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1170 (5th Cir. 1993)); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). In making that determination, the court has the responsibility to scrutinize the entire record. Ransom v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 989, 992 (5th Cir. 1983). The court has limited power of review and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988), even if it finds the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision. See Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994); see also Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988).
The Fifth Circuit has held that 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, 197 F.3d at 197 (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 court's inquiry is whether the record, as a whole, provides sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the ALJ's conclusions. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Crowley, 197 F.3d at 197. "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, 402 U.S. at 390.
The plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in two ways, both regarding the mental health evaluation performed by a licensed psychologist, Dr. Joe Edward Morris. First, she says, the ALJ incorrectly applied the legal standards required by the regulations. Docket 11, p. 6-8. Second, she asserts that the ALJ substituted his own opinion for that of Dr. Morris, a medical expert, without substantial justification. Docket 11, p. 8-11. In sum, both claims of error assert improper application of legal standards in weighing Dr. Morris's opinion. See Docket 11. The plaintiff contends not only that 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 required that the ALJ give Dr. Morris's opinion more weight as an examining source [Docket 11, p. 7], but also that Dr. Morris's opinion was entitled to controlling weight because he is a specialist and the only mental health professional to examine the plaintiff. Docket 11, p. 7, 8.
The Commissioner responds, and the court agrees, that the ALJ was within his discretion to discount Dr. Morris's opinion. To begin, the Commissioner did not dispute that Dr. Morris examined the plaintiff. The regulation states that an examining source is generally given more weight than the opinion of a source who has not examined the claimant. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1). However, the examining relationship, like the nature and extent of the treatment relationship among other ...