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Norman v. Berryhill

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

September 27, 2017




         Riley Ann Norman appeals the final decision denying her second application for 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 that the decision should be affirmed.

         On May 6, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant application for SSI alleging a disability onset date of January 26, 2013, due to anxiety, arm impingements, swelling in her legs and ankles, problems with her right foot, and pain in her shoulder, elbow, neck, and right ankle. She was 49 years old on her application date, and has a GED with past relevant work experience as a housekeeper, a shuttle-bus driver, and assembly worker. Following agency denials of her application, 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. A review of the record reveals that Plaintiff filed a prior application which was denied by the Appeals Council on March 27, 2014. No appeal was taken from that decision making it administratively final. In this regard, the ALJ noted that records from the prior period of adjudication were reviewed but not considered.

         At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, [2] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 6, 2014, the application date. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease; osteoarthritis; mild degenerative joint disease of shoulders with impingement syndrome; obesity; lower-extremity edema; anxiety disorder; and pain disorder were severe, but 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 with the following exceptions:

No exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; and occasional overhead reaching. She can perform simple, routine tasks; with no direct interaction with the public. She can work in close proximity to others, but she must work independently, not in a team.[3]

         Based on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, she could perform work as a housekeeper, cafeteria attendant, and mail clerk.

         Standard of Review

         Judicial review in social security appeals is limited to two basic inquiries: A(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 Arelevant 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 at 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 appeals the ALJ's denial of her claim for one central reason: the ALJ failed to provide good cause for rejecting her treating physician's opinion. Specifically, she maintains that the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the opinion were not supported by substantial evidence, and remand is warranted because her treating physician indicated that she was disabled.

         Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing that a combination of severe physical and mental impairments prevents her from performing any employment on a continuing basis. Chronic edema requires her to elevate her legs and a “roll-away” right ankle causes her to frequently fall. She has back and neck pain, migraine headaches, and limited use of her upper extremities. She has worn a sling on her right arm every day for the past three years, and her left arm has worsened as a result of overuse. She has taken narcotic pain medication for years but testified that she recently stopped seeing her pain management specialist after he declined to pre-authorize her medications; she has continued to take antidepressants as needed for anxiety and depression, however. She has Medicaid and United Healthcare, but testified that lapses in coverage have affected her ability to seek treatment. Plaintiff asserts that her limitations prevent her from concentrating, standing or walking longer than 15-20 minutes, or from lifting her arms over her head.[4]


         In evaluating the evidence, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce some of her alleged symptoms, but her testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects were not fully credible. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to physically perform light work limited to occasional overheard reaching and no exposure to unprotected heights. As her first point of error, Plaintiff asserts that this determination conflicts with the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Bita Ghaffari, who found Plaintiff's limitations would effectively preclude her from performing even sedentary work.

         Dr. Ghaffari opined that Plaintiff could not, inter alia, sit, stand, or walk for longer than 15-20 minutes at a time; lift or carry more than 10 pounds; bend more than 20%; or use either arm for a full workday. The ALJ concluded that Dr. Ghaffari's opinion was inconsistent with the evidence as a whole and her own treatment notes, showing no edema and a low pain rating. Plaintiff notes that Dr. Ghaffari found trace edema on one occasion, but she acknowledges in her memorandum brief that Dr. Ghaffari did not treat her for the physical impairments she alleges are disabling. Records show that Pain-Management Specialist, Dr. Fanni Manney, was Plaintiff's primary provider until he declined to pre-authorize her prescriptions, while Dr. Ghaffari, her family practitioner, primarily treated her for anxiety, insomnia, and minor ailments from ...

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