United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
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 application of plaintiff Carl Anthony Smith for supplemental security income (SSI) payments under Section 1614(a)(3) of the Act. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for benefits on June 17, 2011, alleging disability beginning on March 28, 1998. Docket 8, p. 138-43. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on December 28, 2011, and upon reconsideration on February 1, 2012. Id. at 65-66, 85-88, 93-95. He filed a request for hearing ( id. at 96-98) and was represented by counsel at the hearing held on February 25, 2013. Id. at 26-61. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on March 29, 2013, and on May 19, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review. Id. at 10-20, 4-6. Plaintiff timely filed the instant appeal from the ALJ's most recent decision, and it is now ripe for review.
Because both parties have consented to have 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 on August 10, 1954 and was 58 at the time of the hearing. Docket 8, p. 34. He has a college education, and the ALJ found that his past relevant work was as a general clerk. Id. at 39, 42-43, 62. He contends that he became disabled before his application for benefits as a result of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and back and prostate problems. Id. at 214, 217.
The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered from "severe" impairments including "degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus, and obesity, " (Docket 8, p. 15), but that these impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). Id. at 16. Based upon testimony by the vocational expert [VE] at the hearing and upon consideration of the record as a whole, the ALJ determined that plaintiff retains the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant can occasionally stoop, kneel, climb and balance. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He cannot climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds. The claimant must avoid exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery.
Docket 8, p. 17. Upon further analysis under applicable rulings and regulations, the ALJ found plaintiff to be less than fully credible in that the intensity, persistence and limiting effects he claimed due to his symptoms were not credible. Id. at 18. After evaluating all of the evidence in the record, including testimony of a VE and the testimony of plaintiff's friend Margaret King, the ALJ held that plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a general clerk. Id. at 19. As a result, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at 20.
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred because she did not properly calculate whether plaintiff's income met the threshold for substantial gainful activity ("SGA"), improperly concluded that the GRIDS do not apply, and inadequately considered the effects of obesity in combination with plaintiff's other impairments.
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). The court has the responsibility to scrutinize the entire record to determine whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied 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 reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner,  even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision. 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 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 court's 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).
A. Whether the ALJ properly determined that plaintiff's work as general clerk was ...