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Shells v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 13, 2017




         Plaintiff Alice Merl Shells has applied for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her application for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Docket 1. Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on July 25, 2012, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2000.[1] Docket 7 at 132-37.

         The agency administratively denied Plaintiff's claim initially on October 2, 2012, and on reconsideration on January 16, 2013. Id. at 65-80, 84-87. Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Susan Poulos held on August 15, 2014. Id. at 91-92, 103-08. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 26, 2014. Id. at 8-23. The Appeals Council denied her request for review on February 16, 2016. Id. at 1-4. Plaintiff timely filed this appeal from the February 16, 2016, decision, the undersigned held a hearing on December 14, 2016, and it is now ripe for review.

         Because both parties have consented to a magistrate judge conducting 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. Docket 10.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff was born September 27, 1973, and was 40 years old at the time of the ALJ hearing. Docket 7 at 34. Plaintiff has a ninth grade education and no past relevant work history. Id. at 35, 38-39. Plaintiff contends she became disabled because of pain causing her to suffer from “severe impairments affecting her spine” and also as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome affecting her left hand. Id. at 37. Regarding Plaintiff's spinal impediments, Plaintiff specifically claims she suffers from a mild foramina encroachment in her lumbar spine and disk extrusion and fibrosis tear in her cervical spine. Id. At the ALJ hearing, Plaintiff testified that she experiences pain in her back, arm, leg, and hip with the most significant pain in her back. Id. at 42. She stated that she could walk “maybe half a football field” before experiencing pain in her left hip; she could stand and sit “maybe a couple of hours or so”; and she could lift between five and ten pounds. Id. at 45-46. Plaintiff claimed that she could count change or sort things with her left hand despite the effects of carpal tunnel syndrome and that the brace she has been instructed to wear “helps a lot” with the pain. Id. at 48-49.

         The ALJ established that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 24, 2012, the amended alleged onset date. Id. at 13. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff experienced the severe impairments of carpal tunnel syndrome and degenerative disk disease but that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). Id. at 13, 15.

         Considering Plaintiff's severe impairments, ALJ found that Plaintiff's demonstrated abilities were consistent with a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform light work. Id. at 16-17. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could “lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; […] stand and walk a total of six hours out of an eight-hour work day; […] sit six hours of an eight-hour workday; […] occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; […] never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and […] occasionally climb ramps and stairs.” Id. at 16. Further, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the ability to “perform work that allows her to avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights, moving machinery, as well as temperature extremes, [… and] vibration.” Related to Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could “occasionally reach, handle, and finger objects with the left, non-dominant, extremity.” Id. at 16.

         Treating physician Amy Tucker, M.D. considered Plaintiff unable to adequately perform daily activities or work due to her pain and determined that bed rest was medically necessary. Id. at 17-18. However, the ALJ found that “the medical records do not reflect substantial limitations from [Plaintiff's] physical conditions to support her allegations of debilitating symptoms.” Id. at 17. Consequently, the ALJ afforded little weight to Dr. Tucker's medical source statement, finding that Dr. Tucker's opinions are “inconsistent with the preponderance of the objective medical evidence.” Id. at 17-18.

         Consultative examining physician J.C. Adams, M.D. assessed Plaintiff as having the RFC to perform light work with the following restrictions: no restrictions in her ability to sit, stand, and walk; occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, and kneeling but never crawling or climbing; frequent pushing and pulling and occasional handling, fingering and reaching in all directions. Id. at 19. Dr. Adams noted that the restrictions he provided are greater than what he would expect from Plaintiff's conditions. Id. at 19. The ALJ afforded significant weight to Dr. Adams's opinions, finding them consistent with the objective medical record. Id.

         Based on her review of the medical evidence and in conjunction with Plaintiff's allegations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the [ALJ's] residual functional capacity assessment” because they are “inconsistent with the preponderance of the objective medical evidence.” Id. at 21.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work is impeded by additional limitations. Id. at 22. Having questioned the vocational expert (VE) regarding whether jobs existed in the national economy for an individual of the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ noted the VE's testimony that given those factors, the individual would be able to perform the requirements of occupations such as a cashier, wiper, and bagger. Id. The ALJ ultimately ruled that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since July 24, 2012, the date her application was filed. Id.

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's residual functional capacity conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in failing to reconcile the key differences between the VE's opinion and information provided in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Docket 12 at 13.


         In determining 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 her burden at each of the first four levels, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.[3] First, plaintiff must prove she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.[4] Second, plaintiff must prove her impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .”[5] 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).[6] 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.[7] At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering ...

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