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Jones v. Colvin

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

September 6, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT



         Plaintiff Betty Jones filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her application for Social Security Disability benefits. Doc. [1]. The parties have filed memoranda in support of their respective positions. Doc. [13] & [14]. Jones filed her application for disability benefits alleging disability beginning August 29, 2013, resulting from osteoarthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, depression, herniated disc, pinched nerve, acid reflux, and back fusion. Doc. [10] at 104-06, 120. Jones was 54 years old at the alleged onset of disability, with an 8th grade education, and past relevant work as a snack bar attendant and snack bar manager. Id. at 55, 145-48.

         Jones' application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. at 58-72. She requested and was granted a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 29-57. The ALJ found that Jones had severe impairments of obesity, sciatica, and lumbar degenerative disc disease with stenosis. Id. at 16. The ALJ further found that Jones retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of light work. Id. at 17. The ALJ concluded that Jones was capable of performing past relevant work as a snack bar attendant; therefore, she was not disabled. Id. at 22. The Appeals Council denied Jones' request for review. Id. at 5-8. Having exhausted her administrative proceedings, Jones filed the instant lawsuit. Jones now argues that (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of her subjective complaints; and (2) the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Law and Analysis

         The federal district court reviews the Commissioner's decision only to determine whether the final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal standards to evaluate the evidence. Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999); Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995). If the court determines the Commissioner's decision to be supported by substantial evidence, then the findings are conclusive and the court must affirm the decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This standard requires supporting evidence that is “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The court is not permitted to “reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try any issues de novo, nor substitute our judgment for the judgment of the [Commissioner], even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner's] decision.” Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5th Cir. 1988). “‘Conflicts in the evidence are for the [Commissioner] and not the courts to resolve.'” Brown, 192 F.3d at 496 (quoting Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)). While the court may alter the Commissioner's decision if based upon faulty legal analysis, the court should defer to the Commissioner's legal conclusions if they are within a permissible meaning of the statutory or regulatory language. Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 843-44 (1984).

         A claimant bears the burden of proving the existence of a medically determinable impairment that has prevented the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful employment. 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(5). The Social Security Administration (SSA) utilizes a five-step sequential process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a), § 404.920(a). Under this analysis, the ALJ may decide a claimant is disabled if he finds that (1) the claimant is not employed in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a severe, medically determinable impairment; (3) the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listings in appendix 1 to subpart P of § 404; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from performing any past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant's ability to adjust to performing any other work. Id.

         The claimant initially bears the burden of proving disability under the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the SSA for the fifth step. Chapparo v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 1008, 1010 (5th Cir. 1987). Therefore, if the claimant proves that he is unable to perform past relevant work, the SSA must demonstrate that the claimant can perform another occupation that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The burden then shifts back to the claimant to establish that he cannot perform this alternative employment. Id.

         Credibility Determination

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her subjective complaints and credibility. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that she presented significant evidence of a medically determinable impairment capable of producing disabling pain. She further asserts that the ALJ selectively viewed the evidence or failed to recognize Jones' reported limitations. Finally, Jones argues that the ALJ improperly discredited the function report submitted by her husband.

         While the ALJ must consider a claimant's subjective complaints, she is allowed to examine the objective medical evidence to test claimant's credibility. Johnson v. Heckler, 767 F.2d 180, 182 (5th Cir. 1985). Subjective evidence of symptoms will not take precedence over conflicting medical evidence. Harper v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 92, 96 (5th Cir. 1989). A claimant's subjective complaints may be discounted by an ALJ if they are inconsistent with other evidence in the record. Dunbar v. Barnhart, 330 F.3d 670, 672 (5th Cir. 2003). Moreover, judgment as to the credibility of testimony is the sole province of the ALJ. See Carrier v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d 243, 247 (5th Cir. 1991). The Fifth Circuit has held that the ALJ's credibility determination is entitled to considerable deference. See Falco v. Sullivan, 27 F.3d 160, 164 (5th Cir. 1994).

         The ALJ concluded that Jones' sciatica and lumbar degenerative disc disease could reasonably be expected to cause some limitations, but she found that Jones' allegations of symptoms and limitations were not consistent with the objective medical evidence or her functional ability. Doc. [10] at 20. The ALJ cited to numerous instances where the record contradicted Jones' allegations of disabling pain. For example, the ALJ noted that in a Function Report she indicated that she was able to do dusting, wash dishes, and loads of laundry. Id. at 19. In a medical record dated June 14, 2013, she reported to Dr. Terry Smith that on the previous day she had mowed the yard for about one hour on a riding mower. Id. The ALJ also relied on a medical report from July 1, 2013, indicating that Jones reported no complaints and that she had improved since her last visit. Id. Her records also showed that she spent at least 20 minutes, five times a week, walking. Id. On January 2, 2013, she reported no complaints. Id. On April 2, 2013, she reported doing much better since her back surgery, had no current complaints, and was feeling good. Id. A medical report from Dr. Shawn Mei dated August 9, 2013, showed on examination no pain in muscles or joints, no limitation of range of motion and no paresthesia or numbness. Id. at 20. As of July 14, 2013, Jones reported she had stopped using a walker and cane. Id. at 21. At several office visits subsequent to her February 2013 back surgery Jones reported doing much better and feeling good. Id. Although Jones has pointed to evidence that might support her allegations of disabling pain, these arguments go to the weight of the evidence. The ALJ weighed the conflicting evidence and relied on evidence, both from Jones and from the medical records, that contradicted her allegations of disabling pain. This Court will not re-weigh the evidence. Rather, the Court upholds the ALJ's decision regarding Jones' credibility, because it is supported by substantial evidence.

         Residual Functional Capacity

         Jones argues that the ALJ erred in determining her RFC. According to Jones, the ALJ relied on his own reading of the medical records and failed to obtain a medical assessment addressing Jones' physical capabilities and mental functioning. Although not cited by Jones, she appears to argue that the ALJ failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis of her RFC. The Fifth Circuit held, in the context of Social Security Ruling 96-8p, that an ALJ must perform a function-by-function analysis of a claimant's capacity to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities. Myers v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 617, 620-22 (5th Cir. 2001). The Fifth Circuit explained that the ALJ should take into consideration the medical evidence from all of the claimant's treating doctors and present good cause why any such evidence is rejected. Id. at 621.

         Subsequent to Myers, the Fifth Circuit clarified that an RFC based in part on a state examiner's function-by-function analysis of a claimant's limitations satisfies the legal standard set forth in Myers and SSR 96-8p. See Onishea v. Barnhart, 116 Fed. App'x 1, 2 (5th Cir. 2004) (unpublished). In another opinion, where claimant argued that the Commissioner failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis, the Fifth Circuit held that “[a]lthough the Commissioner did not consider each function of [claimant's] past work, there was no conflicting evidence and substantial evidence supported the Commissioner's finding.” Williams v. Barnhart, 70 Fed. App'x 183, 184 (5th Cir. 2003) (unpublished). Then later in Porter v. Barnhart, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the ALJ ...

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