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Taylor v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

October 3, 2017




         This matter is before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the application of Doris M. Taylor for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. The parties in this case have consented to entry of final judgment by the United States Magistrate Judge under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), with any appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. After considering the issues raised, the court finds as follows:

         In this case the plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in giving greater weight to the opinion of a non-examining physician over the opinion of a consultative examiner and that the ALJ did not fully and fairly evaluate all of the evidence in the record, but rather cherry-picked the evidence to justify denying benefits.


         This court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g.); Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Fifth Circuit has further held that substantial evidence “must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but ‘no substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a ‘conspicuous absence of credible choices' or ‘no contrary medical evidence.'” Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988) (quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide, and if substantial evidence is found to support the decision, the decision 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 may not reweigh the evidence, try the case de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988), even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994); Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475. The court must however, in spite of its limited role, scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision ... and whether substantial evidence exists to support it.” Randall v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 105, 109 (5th Cir. 1992). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by the evidence, then it is a conclusive and must be upheld. Perales, 402 U.S. at 390.


         Doris Taylor was fifty-one years old as of the date of her alleged onset of disability on March 12, 2013. She worked for many years as a paramedic which is skilled work performed at the very heavy exertional level. She also worked as a pharmacy assistant, skilled work performed at a light level of exertion. At the hearing, the plaintiff requested consideration of the favorable determination. On July 12, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. He found that Taylor had severe impairments of a spine disorder, spondylosis at ¶ 5-6 and 6-7 with nerve root compression, cervical radiculopathy, osteoarthritis, headaches, depression, dysthymic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and personality disorder. He did not mention either the favorable disability determination of the Mississippi's public employees' system, nor the physician's statements that had been submitted in connection with that claim. The ALJ found that Taylor could not return to her past employment, but in accordance with the testimony of expert vocational witness that there were other jobs she could perform and that she was not disabled. That decision was affirmed by the Appeals Council and this appeal timely sought.


         In his unfavorable decision, the ALJ discussed the treatment records from the plaintiff's health-care providers in considerable detail. He noted a successful remote C4-5 fusion by Dr. Thomas L. Windham. Medical records from September 2011, prior to the onset of disability, reflect complaints of neck pain with radiation into the upper extremities. Imaging showed mild lumbar disc bulges at two levels and cervical spondylosis with foraminal narrowing which the doctor concluded was nonsurgical. Dr. Windham found moderate loss of motion in the neck, a full range of motion in the upper extremities, with normal motor and sensory function but diminished reflexes in the upper extremities. Dr. Windham recommended cervical blocks. Testing for rheumatoid arthritis in November of 2012 was negative. A December 2012 MRI of the cervical spine showed spondylosis at level CV5-6 and C-6-7 with neuroforaminal narrowing. An MRI of the lumbar spine showed a left bulge at ¶ 2-3 and L3-4 with mild spinal stenosis and neurofaminal narrowing.

         The ALJ also discussed the records of the plaintiff's rheumatologist, Dr. Kirk Eddleman. Dr. Eddleman noted her complaints of general joint pain and stiffness. Again, Taylor tested negative for rheumatoid arthritis. The doctor's impression was polyarthritis, osteoarthritis and fatigue. The ALJ found that Dr. Eddleman concluded she had no erosive osteoarthritis. This is a misstatement as the doctor specifically found Taylor suffered from erosive osteoarthritis. She was treated for her arthritis with anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, therapy and epidural blocks.

         The ALJ also discussed the records from Dr. Kevin T. Foley. Based on radiographic studies, Dr. Foley recommended fusion surgery for Taylor at level C5-6 and C6-7, but the plaintiff did not have the recommended surgery. In April 2013, laboratory testing for rheumatoid arthritis was again negative. Images of her right and left hip showed no abnormalities. Images of the cervical spine showed mild osteophytes at level C5-6 and C6 -7 with mild retrolisthesis. Images of the lumbar spine showed mild degenerative changes.

         In September 2013, the record showed that the plaintiff complained of headaches but examination yielded no abnormal neurological findings. The doctor recommended a brisk exercise program.

         The ALJ's opinion also noted the plaintiff's mental impairments. She was seen by Dr. Jack C. Morgan from 2011 through May 2015. This doctor treated her for anxiety and depressive symptoms with prescribed medications. He made a provisional diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and gave the plaintiff GAF scores ranging between 65 and 78. Her complaints were primarily related to mental issues and stress. She did not report side effects from the medications. The ALJ also the discussed how these records demonstrated at times the plaintiff appeared to be on an "even keel" and at other times demonstrated anger and frustration based on what she felt was her declining physical condition.

         The ALJ discussed also discussed the consultative examination performed by Dr. Michael Whelan, PhD, on the claimant in August 2013. The claimant complained of trust issues because of marital experiences, reported on her activities of daily living which included hobbies, doing housework, driving, taking care of pets, and visiting friends. Whelan found she should be able to handle her own finances. He also noted that she exhibited good concentration during his examination. His impression was anxiety and depression with moderate to severe dysthymic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Dr. Whelan believed that her symptoms were exacerbated by her alleged pain, and opined that she would probably have difficulty sustaining concentration based on pain and her physical limitations.

         The ALJ found that Taylor had the residual functional capacity to lift/carry and push/pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She could stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour work day and could sit for six of eight hours. She could frequently reach, but overhead reaching was precluded. She could perform frequent handling. The ALJ found she could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and never ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally balance, stoop, ...

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