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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 14, 2017




         Plaintiff Amanda E. Smith, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications 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 protectively filed her application for a POD and DIB on September 6, 2012 and her application for SSI on September 15, 2012. Both applications alleged disability beginning on August 1, 2012. Her claim was denied initially on January 2, 2013, and upon reconsideration on June 6, 2013. She filed a request for hearing and was represented by counsel at the hearing held on August 19, 2014. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on November 13, 2014, and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review on March 30, 2016. 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. Having considered the record, the briefs and the oral arguments of counsel, the court finds this case should be remanded to the Social Security Administration.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff was born on February 28, 1980 and was 34 years old at the time of the hearing. She has a high school education and “a couple years of college.” Docket 10 at 36-37. Plaintiff had past relevant work as a sitter for the elderly, a medical records clerk and a pharmacy technician. Plaintiff contends that she became disabled before her application for benefits due to “bipolar disorder, major depression, scoliosis of the spine.” Docket 10 at 198.

         The ALJ determined plaintiff suffered from “severe” impairments including anxiety, depression and lumbar scoliosis with lumbosacral spondylosis without myelopathy, but found these 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). Based upon testimony by the vocational expert [VE] at the hearing and considering 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 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant can occasionally climb, balance, stoop crouch, crawl and kneel. She is limited to simple, routine tasks, by which it is meant that she can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. She cannot interact with the public and can occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers.

Docket 10 at 20. 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 she claimed due to her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” After evaluating all of the evidence in the record, including testimony of a VE, the ALJ held that plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in the national economy such as merchant maker, routing clerk, and silver wrapper. Docket 10 at 24. As a result, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id.

         Plaintiff contends first that the ALJ erred because he failed to properly and fully develop the record in failing to identify and evaluate the author of a mental assessment provided by Region 8 Mental Health Center. Docket 18 at 7. Further, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred concluding that the global assessment of functioning scores provided by treating physicians did not reflect her current mental state. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of Dr. Okechuku as to her physical condition and that he disregarded her credible testimony. Following a review of the briefs, the transcript and oral argument, the undersigned concludes that plaintiff's case should be remanded for identification of the author of the mental assessment at Region 8, as well as for proper consideration of plaintiff's global assessment of functioning scores.


         In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process.[1] 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.[2] First, plaintiff must prove she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.[3] Second, plaintiff must prove her impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .”[4] 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).[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

         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, [9] even if it finds that the evidence leans against the Commissioner's decision.[10] 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 (5thCir. 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).


         Of primary concern to the court is the ALJ's failure to identify the individual who completed the Functional Data Request Form sent to Regional 8 Mental Health Center by the Office of Disability Determination Services. Docket 10 at 310-16. On September 20, 2012, the Office of Disability Determination Services specifically requested that an individual from Region 8 Mental Health Center, where plaintiff had been treated, provide the “DETAILED, SPECIFIC information on the claimant” requested as it was “necessary to establish chronicity and to determine the severity of the impairment over a period of time . . .” Docket 10 at 310. The signature of the individual completing the Functional Data Request Form is illegible and neither the state agency examiner nor the ALJ made any attempt to identify the person who completed the form. As a result, the ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions contained in the Functional Data Request Form which ...

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