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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2018




         Gaston Johnson Smith has appealed the decision of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Social Security disability or SSI benefits. Smith is appealing the denial of his fourth application for disability benefits since 2004. The ALJ determined that Smith's uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension were severe impairments, but that he was nevertheless able to perform a full range of medium work. The ALJ further found Smith was unable to return to his past employment as a heavy truck driver because federal regulations bar insulin-dependent diabetics from this work. Though the ALJ found that Smith was suffering from two severe nonexertional impairments, rather than relying on a vocational expert, the ALJ determined at Step Five that Smith was not disabled pursuant to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. The plaintiff argues there were multiple errors in the decision.


         A claimant has the burden of proving he suffers from a disability, which the Social Security Act defines as a mental or physical impairment, lasting at least a year, that precludes him from substantial gainful activity. The relevant analysis proceeds in five steps: the Commissioner considers whether (1) the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) he has a severe impairment, (3) the impairment meets the severity of an impairment enumerated in the relevant regulations, (4) it prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work, and (5) it prevents him from doing any relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 (5th Cir. 2002). If the claimant survives the first four stages, the burden shifts to the Commissioner on the fifth step to prove the claminat's employability, Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005). A finding at any step that the claimant is not disabled ends the inquiry. Chaparro v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 1009, 1010 (5th Cir. 1987).

         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.


         In the decision denying benefits, the ALJ found the claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 27, 2012, the alleged date of onset of disability. At Step Two, the ALJ, found the claimant's uncontrolled hypertension and uncontrolled diabetes were severe impairments.

         After examining the medical source statement from his treating physician that found Smith had no physical, environmental, postural, or psychological limitations, the ALJ found that Smith had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of medium work. The treating physician opined Smith had no pain and no limitations in his ability to sit, stand, walk, or any need for unscheduled work breaks. He suffered from no tenderness, spasms, sensory loss, muscle weakness, musculoskeletal issues, limitation on range of motion, or abnormal gait. His treating physician thought he could sustain full time work. Other than a legal restriction on truck driving, the treating physician did not suggest any functional limitations arising from either the hypertension or diabetes mellitus.

         The plaintiff claimed in his testimony that his severe conditions impacted his ability to lift, stand, reach, walk, remember, complete tasks, concentrate, understand instructions, and use his hands, but the ALJ found that these complaints were not supported by the evidence in the record. With regard to his diabetes, the ALJ noted that the treatment records showed a diagnosis of diabetic neuropathy based on the plaintiff's subjective complaints. The ALJ noted the diagnosis was not established by objective testing and that the objective findings on physical examination were inconsistent with neuropathy. Additionally, there was no evidence of end organ damage.

         As with his diabetes, Smith's hypertension was uncontrolled and for the same reason-Smith's noncompliance with prescribed treatment and medications. The ALJ rejected the plaintiff's suggestion that his noncompliance was because of his limited finances. Again, there was no evidence of any end organ damage or ongoing complaints secondary to the hypertension.

         At Step Four, based upon the treating physician's notation that Smith was legally barred by federal regulations from being licensed as a heavy truck driver because he is insulin-dependent, the ALJ found that Smith could not return to his past relevant work Finally at Step Five, relying solely on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ found that Smith was not disabled. Though Smith moved from the “closely approaching advanced age” into the “advanced age” category during the pendency of his claim and had only a limited education, with his residual functional capacity to perform the full range of medium work, the Medical-Vocational Guidelines dictate a finding of “not disabled, ” regardless of the change in age categories. 20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a) and 416.969(a). Medical Vocational Rule 203.19 and 203.12


         1. The First Four Assignments of Error

         While the plaintiff has raised five issues in his brief, the court finds that each of the first four assignments of error is either without merit or that any error is harmless. These assignments need only be addressed briefly.

         The plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ erred in making his credibility determination. The court finds the credibility determination was supported by substantial evidence and not erroneous. The ALJ found that the plaintiff left his employment because the employer closed. This finding is not erroneous because the plaintiff testified to a dual reason for his leaving work-that the employer closed and that he ...

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