United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division
M. VIRDEN U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
cause is before the Court on Plaintiff's Complaint for
judicial review of an unfavorable final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying
claims for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income. 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, and the applicable law,
and having heard oral argument, is of the opinion that the
decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed for the
reasons that follow.
September 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed for Title II disability
insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income
under the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq.,
alleging disability beginning June 15, 2015. After his
applications were denied initially and at the reconsideration
level, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which an administrative
law judge (ALJ) held on June 14, 2017. Plaintiff, represented
by an attorney, and a vocational expert (VE) testified at the
hearing. The ALJ noted Plaintiff requested a closed period of
disability from April 1, 2014, through April 13, 2015. On
August 22, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff
not disabled “through the date of this decision”
even though the claimant had requested a closed period of
disability. Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council
(“AC”) review the ALJ's decision, and on May
11, 2018, the AC denied his request for review. Thus, the
ALJ's August 22, 2017 decision became the
Commissioner's final decision and subject to judicial
review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
filed his Complaint  in this Court on June 20, 2018. The
Court issued a briefing schedule and set this matter for a
telephonic hearing, which was held on June 26, 2019.
Evaluation Process and ALJ Findings
determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ,
works through a five-step sequential evaluation process.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. 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. Muse v. Sullivan, 925
F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991). First, the claimant must prove
he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity
(“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) and
416.920(b). Second, the claimant must prove his impairment is
“severe” in that it “significantly limits
his physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and
416.920(c). At step three the ALJ must conclude the 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, §§ 1.00-114.10
(2010). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525,
404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. Accordingly, if a
claimant's impairments meet or medically equal the
requisite criteria, that claimant's impairments are of
such severity that they would prevent any person from
performing substantial gainful activity.
moving to step four, the ALJ must determine the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), which is the individual's ability to
do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis
despite limitations from his impairments. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(e) and 416.920(e); SSR 96-8p. At step
four, the claimant bears the burden of proving he is
incapable of meeting the physical and/or mental demands of
his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f)
and 416.920(f). If the claimant is successful at all four of
the preceding steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at
step five to prove, considering the claimant's residual
functional capacity, age, education and past work experience,
that he is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R
§§ 404.1520(f)(1) and 416.920(g)(1). If the
Commissioner proves other work exists (in significant numbers
in the national economy) which the claimant can perform, the
claimant is given the chance to prove that he cannot, in
fact, perform that work. Muse, 925 F.2d at 789. The
Commissioner can meet this burden by relying on the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grid Rules”)-in
appropriate circumstances-or VE testimony. If the Agency
conclusively finds that a claimant is or is not disabled at
any point in the five-step process, the evaluation may
terminate at that point. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4).
case Plaintiff alleged disability beginning April 1, 2014,
after stepping on a nail with his left foot, resulting in
limited use of that foot. Born in 1972, at the end of the
relevant period, Plaintiff was a younger individual age 45-49
and had completed college. So, at step one, though the ALJ
noted Plaintiff had likely engaged in SGA after his April 1,
2014 alleged onset date, he gave him the benefit of the doubt
and moved to the next step of the process. At step two, the
ALJ found Plaintiff's “left foot injury” was
a “severe impairment” under the Act. At step
three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairment or
combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal
any impairment for presumptive disability in the Listing of
Impairments, including Listings 1.02A or 1.02B, at any time
during the adjudicated period.
the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the full
range of sedentary work activity as defined in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). The ALJ concluded
Plaintiff's subjective complaints of disabling pain and
other symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the
medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” The
ALJ further found Plaintiff did not have the RFC to perform
his past relevant work (PRW). At step five, the ALJ relied on
Grid Rule 201.21 in concluding that other work was available
in significant numbers in the national economy to a person
sharing Plaintiff's RFC and vocational profile. Thus, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time
through the date of his decision.
of Review and Legal Principles
review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to two
inquiries: (1) whether substantial evidence in the record
supports the Commissioner's decision and (2) whether the
decision comports with proper legal standards. See Villa
v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990).
“Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'” Greenspan v. Shalala, 38
F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d
842 (1971)). “It is more than a mere scintilla, and
less than a preponderance.” Spellman v.
Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing
Moore v. Sullivan, 919 F.2d 901, 904 (5th Cir.
1990)). “A decision is supported by substantial
evidence if ‘credible evidentiary choices or medical
findings support the decision.'” Salmond v.
Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018) (citations
court must be careful not to “reweigh the evidence or
substitute . . . [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ,
see 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. 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). 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).
claimant must prove his disability, as defined by the Act, to
be entitled to Social Security disability benefits. See
Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 563-64 (5th Cir. 1995);
Abshire v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 638, 640 (5th Cir. 1988).
The claimant also bears the burden of showing that any
alleged error of law was prejudicial because the Supreme
Court has recognized that the doctrine of harmless error
applies to administrative determinations, and the Fifth
Circuit has specifically held that it will not vacate a
judgment unless the substantial rights of a party are
affected. See Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396,
407-08 (2009); Jones v. Astrue, 691 F.3d 730, 734
(5th Cir. 2012); Mays v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1362, 1364
(5th Cir. 1988).
initial brief  Plaintiff first asserted that “it
should have been determined that . . . [he] was disabled
during the closed claim period.” Plaintiff stated he
“was disabled 4/11/14 and still suffer[s] from the
disability now . . . and was disabled 06/25/2015; [sic] which
covers the time period of the closed claim period.”
Plaintiff made several additional arguments in this initial
brief; however, after the Commissioner responded to
Plaintiff's brief, Plaintiff filed a reply brief ,
wherein he reiterated the arguments made in his initial brief
and added several new arguments. Both in his reply brief and
during the telephonic hearing, Plaintiff ...