United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
S. ALLAN ALEXANDER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Ann Snowden appeals a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability (POD) and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Sections 216(I) and 223 of the Social Security Act and for supplemental security income (SSI) payments under Section 1614(a)(3) of the Act. Plaintiff applied for disability on August 16, 2011, alleging disability beginning on February 1, 2008. Docket 9, p. 108-112. Her claim was denied initially on January 3, 2012, and on reconsideration on March 16, 2012. Id. at 66-68, 73-76. She requested a hearing ( id. at 77) and was not represented by counsel at the hearing held on July 2, 2013. Id. at 22-61. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on September 3, 2013 ( id. at 6-17), and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review on September 26, 2014. Id. at 1-3. Plaintiff timely filed this appeal from the ALJ's most recent decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 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 October 1, 1958 and has a high school education. Docket 9, p. 32-33. She was fifty-two years old at the time of her application and fifty-four years old at the time of the hearing. Her past relevant work was as a customer service clerk, receptionist, general clerk, laundry worker, data entry clerk and office manager. Id. at 54. Plaintiff contends that she became disabled before her application for disability as a result of neck problems and pain, limited range of motion in her neck, right knee problems, and numbness of the middle finger on her right hand. Docket 9, p. 142. The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered from "severe" impairments of "cervical spine degenerative disc disease (status-post discectomy and fusion), and right knee disorder (status-post surgical repair), and obesity" (Docket 9, p. 11), but that her impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). Id. at 12.
Based upon testimony by the vocational expert [VE] at the hearing, and after considering the record as a whole, the ALJ determined that plaintiff retains the Residual Functional Capacity [RFC] to
perform a full range of sedenetary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). That is; [sic] lift and/or carry up to 10 pounds at a time and lift and/or carry small articles (e.g., docket files, ledgers, small tools) occasionally, standing and/or walk for a total of about two hours in an eight-hour workday, sit for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and push and/or pull unlimited other than as shown above for lift and/or carry.
Docket 9, p. 13. Upon further analysis under applicable rulings and regulations, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was less than fully credible in describing the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her claimed symptoms, limitations and subjective complaints. Id. at 14. The ALJ evaluated all of the evidence in the record, including testimony of both plaintiff and a VE at the hearing, and found that because plaintiff could perform her previous job as a data entry clerk, she is not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at 16.
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by concluding that she could perform her past work and by failing to protect her rights as an unrepresented claimant. Docket 17.
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). 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 can ...