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Drury v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 30, 2018




         This matter is before the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the application of James Drury for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. The parties 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.

         The court, having reviewed the administrative record, the briefs of the parties, the applicable law, and having heard oral argument, finds the Commissioner's decision denying benefits should be affirmed. The decision is supported by substantial evidence and no prejudicial error has been found.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On April 14, 2008, James Drury filed his application for SSI, alleging onset of disability on February 27, 2008. After the application was denied at the lower levels, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on May 7, 2010. An unfavorable decision was issued on June 23, 2010, which was later vacated by the Appeals Council. Following a second hearing on May 19, 2011, the ALJ again issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council again vacated the ALJ's decision. A third hearing was held on January 10, 2013, which also resulted in an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied review. Drury then appealed to this court, which reversed and remanded the case for further consideration. On remand from this court, the ALJ conducted a fourth hearing on January 8, 2015, which again resulted in an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council remanded. A fifth hearing was held on December 1, 2015. An unfavorable decision followed, and the Appeals Council denied review. The case is now before this court a second time.

         The ALJ found that Drury had severe impairments of obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulse control disorder, depression, anxiety, and emerging cluster C personality disorder. After determining that the claimant did not meet any listed impairment, the ALJ determined Drury's residual functional capacity, finding he could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations: simple, routine, repetitive tasks of unskilled work; ability to maintain attention and concentration for two-hour periods; can work in proximity to, but not in coordination with, co-workers; no interaction with the general public; limited to low stress work with no fast-paced production requirements and only simple work related decisions, with few or no changes in the work setting.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Drury was capable of performing past relevant work as a janitor as generally performed in the national economy. Alternatively, the ALJ found that other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform. Representative occupations included kitchen helper (medium, unskilled, 80, 000 nationally), laundry worker (medium, unskilled, 30, 000 nationally), and hand packager (medium, unskilled, 40, 000 nationally). The ALJ thus found claimant was not disabled.

         The claimant asserts the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is not based upon proper legal standards because the ALJ failed to give due consideration to medical opinion evidence provided by his primary treating mental health provider and arrived at his RFC using a defective hypothetical posed to the vocational expert.

         Law and Standard of Review

         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 and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 163 (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 even if it finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434(5th Cir. 1994); Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988); Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by the evidence, then it is conclusive and must be upheld. Paul v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 208, 210 (5th Cir. 1994).

         In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential process.[1] The burden rests upon the claimant throughout the first four steps of this five-step process to prove disability, and if the claimant is successful in sustaining his burden at each of the first four levels, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.[2] First, claimant must prove he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.[3] Second, claimant must prove his 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 claimant is disabled if he proves that his impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1.[5] Fourth, claimant bears the burden of proving he is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of his past relevant work.[6] If claimant is successful at all four of the preceding steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience, that he is capable of performing other work.[7] If the Commissioner proves other work exists which claimant can perform, claimant is given the chance to prove that he cannot, in fact, perform that work.[8]

         Analysis and Discussion


         Claimant argues that the ALJ erred by not conducting a factor-by-factor analysis of the medical source statements of treating psychiatrists Dr. Aleem and Dr. Chechelashvili, as required by Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 456-58 (5th Cir. 2000). However, such a Newton analysis is required only when the ALJ rejects the opinion of the treating physician, in the “absen[ce of] reliable medical evidence from a treating or examining physician controverting the claimant's treating specialist.” Id. at 453. The presence of competing medical opinions from treating or examining physicians takes the case outside the purview of Newton.

         The ALJ conducted an extensive analysis of the medical evidence of record. Dr. Chechelashvili evaluated claimant from July 5, 2006, through September 19, 2011.[9] In his April 19, 2010, “Medical Opinion Re: Ability to Do Work-Related Activities (Mental)” form, Dr. Chechelashvili opined that Drury had poor or no ability to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms or to respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting.[10] However, he also indicated that Drury had unlimited or very good ability to remember work-like procedures and to understand, remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions. Drury exhibited a good ability to maintain attention for two-hour segments, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, ask simple questions or request assistance, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions. Finally, Chechelashvili opined that claimant possessed a fair ability to maintain regular attendance and punctuality, work in coordination with or ...

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