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Dalton v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 4, 2017




         Plaintiff China Nicole Dalton, 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. Plaintiff protectively filed her application for a POD and DIB on February 8, 2013 alleging disability beginning November 17, 2012. Her claim was denied initially on June 3, 2013, and upon reconsideration on September 12, 2013. She filed a request for hearing and was represented by counsel at the hearing held on April 1, 2015. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on May 21, 2015, and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for a review on July 15, 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 November 8, 1973 and was 41 years old at the time of the hearing. She has a college education and previously worked as a secondary school teacher. Docket 8 at 32, 49. Plaintiff contends that she became disabled before her application for benefits due to “severe clinical depression, seizures, fatigue, anxiety, thyroid problems and metabolic syndrome.” Docket 8 at 168.

         The ALJ determined plaintiff suffered from “severe” impairments including an anxiety disorder and major depressive/affective disorder but found that 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 and 404.1526). Docket 8 at 15-16. 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 she can never climb ladders or scaffolds, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace (e.g., assembly line work). The claimant is limited to simple work-related decisions and is able to respond appropriately to co-workers, supervisors, and the public on an occasional basis. Finally, the claimant would be absent one day a month from work.

         Docket 8 at 17. The ALJ then 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 and would not preclude light work as described above.” Id. at 18. 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 a sorter, a checker and a sampler. Id. at 19. As a result, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at 20.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in formulating her Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and in failing to properly evaluate the opinion of Dr. Clyde Sheehan. Docket 11 at 1. Following a review of the briefs, the transcript and oral argument, the court agrees.


         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 (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).


         Plaintiff's two assignments of error are based on the ALJ's failure to include in the RFC the limitations of Dr. Savell, the ALJ's own consultative examiner, and the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Sheehan, resulting in a flawed RFC. The second assignment of error, that the ALJ did not perform the requisite analysis of Dr. Sheehan's opinion, ...

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