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Entrekin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division

March 20, 2017




         Julie Entrekin appeals the final decision denying her applications for a period of disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). The Commissioner requests an order pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), affirming the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge. Having carefully considered the hearing transcript, the medical records in evidence, and all the applicable law, the Court finds the final administrative decision should be affirmed.

         In March 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2011, due to bulging discs from L3 to S1 and degenerative disc disease. She was 43 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. She has an associate degree with past work experience as a registered nurse.

         Following agency denials of her applications, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) rendered an unfavorable decision finding that she had not established a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. She now appeals that decision.

         At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, [2] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that although Plaintiff's disorders of the lumbar spine, affective disorder, and an anxiety disorder were severe, they did not meet or medically equal any listing. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work except that:

the claimant cannot be exposed to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery. She can occasionally crouch, crawl, stoop, kneel, balance, and climb stairs. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is restricted to simple, well-defined tasks with simple instructions and simple decisions. She can interact only occasionally with the general public. She cannot deal with people as customers. She can work around others; however, she cannot supervise the work of others and the work should not require frequent communication with coworkers or supervisors. She can adjust to a work routine provided the work is not highly exacting, complex, or dangerous. She can adjust to a gradual change in work routine. She cannot drive commercially.[3]

         Based on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded at step five, that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, she could perform work as a mail clerk, bench assembler, and press machine operator.

         Standard of Review

         Judicial review in social security appeals is limited to two basic inquiries: “(1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the [ALJ's] decision; and (2) whether the decision comports with relevant legal standards.” Brock v. Chater, 84 F.3d 726, 728 (5th Cir. 1996) (citing Carrier v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d 243, 245 (5th Cir. 1991)). Evidence is substantial if it is “relevant and sufficient for a reasonable mind to accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it must be more than a scintilla, but it need not be a preponderance.” Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995) (quoting Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992)). This Court may not re-weigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, even if it finds evidence that preponderates against the ALJ's decision. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994).


         Plaintiff's sole issue on appeal is whether the ALJ committed reversible error in violation of social security rulings and regulations by mischaracterizing and failing to fully evaluate her pain management physician's opinion.

         Plaintiff testified that she suffers from several impairments, including a ruptured disc, broken coccyx, degenerative disc disease, leg pain, anxiety and depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, and debilitating migraine headaches. She experiences constant unremitting pain all over as a result, and in her lower body “every second of every day.” Although pain medication helps, the side effects cause sleepiness, grogginess, stomach and memory problems. Performing any physical activity, i.e., standing, walking, sitting, or driving, for any length of time is difficult and exacerbated by postural activities. In addition to her pain, she is consumed by anxiety and depression, which she attributes to the death of several family members and friends. She takes antidepressants, but stopped going to mental health counseling because it was too difficult. Her pain and psychological symptoms limit her daily activities and affect her ability to concentrate. She finds it hard to get up, bathe, dress, and eat because of depression, and testified that she feels like a vegetable. Though she drives and cares for her pet and youngest child after school, she is unable to do most household chores. On appeal, she charges that the ALJ's failure to assign controlling weight to the medical opinions of her pain-management specialist was reversible error, and requests that this case be remanded for further evaluation of her cervical issues.[4]

         Generally, the opinion and diagnosis of a treating physician should be given considerable weight in determining disability. But the treating physician's rule is “not an ironclad rule.” Garcia v. Colvin, 622 F. App'x 405, 410 (5th Cir. 2015). “[S]uch opinions can be disregarded if they are ‘brief and conclusory, not supported by medically acceptable clinical diagnostic techniques, or otherwise unsupported by the evidence.'” Id. (quoting Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 466 (5th Cir. 2005)).

         The Fifth Circuit has long held that “absent reliable medical evidence from a treating or examining physician controverting the claimant's treating specialist, an ALJ may reject the opinion of the treating physician only if the ALJ performs a detailed analysis of the treating physician's views under the criteria set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2).” Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d. 448, 453 (5th Cir. 2000) (emphasis in original). The statutory analysis requires the ALJ to consider the length of treatment; the frequency of examination; the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; the extent to which his opinions were supported by the medical record; the consistency of his opinion with the record as a whole; and the specialization of the physician. Id. at 456. The ALJ is not required, however, to consider each of the these factors when “there is competing first-hand medical evidence and the ALJ finds as a factual matter that one doctor's opinion is more well-founded than another.” Walker v. Barnhart, 158 F.App'x 534, ...

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