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Stark v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

May 13, 2015

ANDREW STARK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DAVID A. SANDERS, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the application of Andrew Stark for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under the Social Security Act. The parties in this case have consented to entry of final judgment by a United States Magistrate Judge under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), with any appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. After considering the issues presented, the court finds as follows:

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On February 15, 2011, plaintiff filed for Supplemental Security Income payments under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner denied his application for benefits initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held on March 11, 2013. On March 25, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the agency's Appeals Council, but on May 15, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. The plaintiff then filed the present action, which is properly before this court.

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

At step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:

Perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(a), except for the following limitations: no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional stooping, and only simple, routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.

Doc. 9, p. 39. Despite this RFC, the vocational expert ("VE") testified that plaintiff could perform the following occupations: small parts assembler, bench assembler and electronics assembler.[1] Each occupation is classified as having a "light" exertional level by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"), and the VE stated as much at the hearing. Doc. 9, p. 101. Nevertheless, based on his "observations and experience, " the VE testified that jobs in these occupations existed at the sedentary exertion level, as well. Id. When asked whether his testimony was consistent with the DOT, the VE answered in the affirmative, and the ALJ conducted no further inquiry into this conflict. Id.

In his written decision, the ALJ found plaintiff capable of making a successful adjustment to other work and, therefore, not disabled. Doc. 9, p. 44. However, the ALJ offered no explanation regarding how the conflict between the VE's testimony and the DOT descriptions was resolved. Rather, the ALJ stated:

The vocational expert also testified that, while all three of these jobs are listed at the Light level in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, based on his knowledge and experience as a vocational expert, they exist at the Sedentary level in the numbers cited above.

Id. According to the hearing transcript, though, the VE never quantified the number of jobs available at the sedentary exertion level.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

To determine disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process.[2] 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.[3] First, plaintiff must prove he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.[4] Second, plaintiff must prove his impairment is "severe" in that it "significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities..."[5] 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).[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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's, [10] even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision.[11] 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). 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 ...


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