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Williams v. Berryhill

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

August 3, 2018

SOUTHE LISA MAGEE WILLIAMS PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          REPORT & RECOMMENDATION

          Michael T. Parker United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Lisa Magee Williams brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration denying her claim for disability insurance benefits. The matter is now before the Court on the Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision [10]. Having considered the pleadings, the record, and the applicable law, the undersigned recommends that the Defendant's Motion to Affirm the Commissioner's Decision [10] be GRANTED, the Commissioner's final decision should be AFFIRMED, and this action be DISMISSED.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 14, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits alleging she had been disabled since October 10, 2013, due to depression, anxiety, hypertension, vitamin D deficiency, back problems, low magnesium, and severe anxiety. See (Administrative Record [6] at 82-83, 97-98.) The Social Security Administration denied Williams' application, and she requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on February 23, 2016. See ([6] at 58, 110-13, 118-23.) On June 24, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that she was not disabled. ([6] at 13-40.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review, id. at 6-12, and this appeal followed.

         WORK HISTORY

         Plaintiff was forty-one years old on the alleged onset date of October 10, 2013 and forty-three years old at the time of the hearing. ([6] at 82.) She reported obtaining a bachelor's degree in music education, a master's degree in secondary education and that she worked as a school teacher. ([6] at, 32, 64, 93, 107, 156.) At the time of the hearing, she worked as the Minister of Music at her church, making $500 a month, and she played the piano at the Church the Sunday before the hearing with the ALJ. ([6] at 65, 156.)

         The Court has determined that a detailed recitation of the medical records is not necessary because the ALJ provided a sufficient summary in the decision.

         HEARING AND DECISION

         In the June 24, 2016 decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's impairments using the familiar sequential evaluation process.[1] The ALJ found that while the Plaintiff worked after the alleged disability onset date, she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, and had the severe impairments of obesity, back pain, depression, anxiety, and carpal- tunnel syndrome. See ([6] at 18-19.) The ALJ also considered the combined effect of these impairments and determined that they did not, singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria for any listed impairment. ([6] at 20.) After considering the record, the ALJ found that Williams has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with some additional limitations. ([6] at 23.) The ALJ found that Willams was unable to perform her past relevant work as a school teacher, but based on her RFC, a significant number of jobs in the national economy existed that Plaintiff could perform, and thus she was not disabled. ([6] at 32-34.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court's review is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971), and whether the correct legal standards were applied, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006). Accord Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 163 (5th Cir. 1994); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990).

         The Fifth Circuit has defined the “substantial evidence” standard as follows:

Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It 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.”

Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983). In applying the substantial evidence standard, the Court must carefully examine the entire record, but must refrain from re-weighing the evidence or substituting its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995). Conflicts in the evidence and credibility assessments are for the Commissioner and not for the courts to resolve. Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by the evidence, and the proper legal standards are applied, the decision is conclusive and must be upheld by this Court. Paul v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 208, 210 (5th Cir. 1994), overruled on other grounds, Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103 (2000).

         DISCUSSION OF ALLEGED ERRORS AND APPLICABLE LAW

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the listings, specifically Listing 1.04A. She also argues that the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ failed to comply with SSR 00-4p.

         Whether the ALJ Failed to Properly Evaluate Listing 1.04A

         The Plaintiff avers that the ALJ did not properly evaluate and consider Listing 1.04A at Step Three, and maintains that the ALJ erred by not finding that her impairments meet or equal Listing 1.04A.

         As evidenced by her opinion, in reaching her conclusion regarding the listings, the ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.04:

In reaching this conclusion, the undersigned considered listing 1.04 governing disorders of the spine. The medical evidence of record does not document any spinal abnormalities necessary to meet the requirements of Section 1.04 of the Listings, governing disorders of the spine. There is no evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and positive straight-leg raising test; spinal arachnoiditis; or lumbar spinal stenosis resulting mpseudoclaudication with inability to ambulate effectively, as required by section 1.04.

([6] at 20).

         Listing 1.04A describes “[d]isorders of the spine, ” in relevant part, as follows:

Disorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, vertebral fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord. With ... [e]vidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine).

Listing 1.04A.

         Plaintiff complains that the ALJ simply tracked the language of Listing 1.04 without discussing relevant evidence. However, the ALJ is not required “to do an exhaustive point-by-point discussion” of the listings. Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 448 (5th Cir. 2007). She also discussed evidence relevant to this listing, in part, in her RFC analysis. However, even if there was error in not going into more detail in the listing section of her opinion, the Fifth Circuit has held that “[p]rocedural perfection in administrative proceedings is not required. This court will not vacate a judgment unless the substantial rights of a party have been affected. . . . The major policy underlying the harmless error rule is to preserve judgments and to avoid waste of time.” Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 634 (5th Cir. 1989) (quoting Mays v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1362, 1364 (5th Cir.1988)) (per curiam). “[P]rocedural improprieties . . . will therefore constitute a basis for remand only if such improprieties would cast into doubt the existence of substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision.” Alexander v. Astrue, 412 Fed.Appx. 719, 722 (5th Cir.2011) (emphasis added); Morris v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 333, 335 (5th Cir.1988). The ALJ's error is harmless if the substantial rights of a party have not been affected. See Alexander, 412 F. App's at 722; see also Audler, 501 F.3d at 448 (applying harmless error analysis to the ALJ's failure to state any reason for her adverse determination at step three).

         The Commissioner acknowledges that Plaintiff has a disorder of the spine, degenerative disc disease, but argues that the record does not reflect evidence to support nerve root compression for a continuous twelve months. Plaintiff suggests she experienced each of the five requirements necessary to show nerve root compression. ([9] at 38-40.) While Plaintiff did meet some of the requirements at different times, the record does not demonstrate she continuously met all of the five requirements for the listing for a continuous twelve months.

         The applicable regulation states that the Social Security Administration will find that a claimant's impairment meets the requirements of a listing when it satisfies all of the criteria of that listing, including any relevant criteria in the introduction, and meets the duration requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(c)(3). The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). If a claimant is unable to establish that the impairment existed for the requisite period of twelve months, he cannot carry his burden of meeting the requirements of the relevant listing. Carrillo v. Astrue, No. CIV.A.SA-09-CA-44-XR, 2010 WL 2136438, at *6 (W.D. Tex. May 26, 2010).

         The record shows multiple years of full motor strength and normal muscle tone and bulk in all four of Plaintiffs extremities. The ALJ also observed in her RFC determination that Plaintiff's symptoms in 2013 “were generally normal, with some episodes of low back pain, but that she was using Flexeril which provided relief and denied current muscle pain, joint swelling, or ...


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