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Cauthen v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 20, 2019



          David A. Sanders United States Magistrate Judge

         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 Pamela K. Cauthen 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.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On January 25, 2017, Pamela K. Cauthen filed her application for SSI. After the application was denied at the lower levels, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on February 27, 2018. An unfavorable decision was issued on April 2, 2018. The Appeals Council denied review. The case is now before this court on appeal.

         The ALJ found that Cauthen suffered from the following medically determinable impairments: degenerative changes of the cervical and lumbar spine, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, peripheral neuropathy, gastroesophageal reflux disease, osteoarthritis, allergies, a history of carpal tunnel syndrome with carpal tunnel release, a history of rotator cuff surgery, and a history of prior back surgeries. However, none of these-singularly or in combination-was found to be severe. Finding no severe impairment(s), the ALJ found claimant not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI benefits.

         The claimant asserts the ALJ's finding of no severe impairment(s) is not supported by the medical record.

         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, 7 F.3d 160');">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');">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, 7 F.2d 1378');">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" name="FN7" id="FN7">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 cites the following evidence to rebut the ALJ's finding of non-severity:

• A September 2015 visit with Dr. Jimmy Miller describing claimant as having multiple lumbar surgeries with a “10 year history” of radiating lumbar pain, “hyperesthesia on left foot, ” and pain aggravated by walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.[9] On physical examination, Dr. Miller found “tenderness bilaterally in parascapular region” and “tender over left trapezius.”[10] On a specified lumbar exam, Dr. Miller again commented that claimant had “tenderness bilaterally in parascauplar region” and was “tender over left trapezius[, ] with flexed hip and knee and resisted abduction bilaterally, pain only in back.”[11]
March 2015 progress notes from Nurse Practitioner Kara McKay, who listed claimant's reason for appointment as “[o]uter part of left foot burns since she had back surgery, ” inability to sleep at night, and “severe neck pain.”[12] McKay assessed claimant with “diabetes mellitus with neurological manifestations, ” “peripheral neuropathy, ” “degenerative dis disease[-]cervical, ” “depression with anxiety, ” and “degeneration of lumbar or lumbosacral intervertebral disc.”[13]
April 2015 progress notes from McKay, who again listed burning in the left foot as the reason for appointment and made the same assessments as she did in March.[14]
December 2015 progress notes from McKay assessing claimant with uncontrolled diabetes mellitus type II, peripheral neuropathy, and osteoarthritis.[15] McKay made the same assessments in March 2016[16] and June 2016.[7" name="FN17" id= "FN17">17]
• In October 2016, McKay again assessed uncontrolled type II diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, and specified that claimant suffered from “primary osteoarthritis of both knees.”[18]
• On January 30, 2017, McKay assessed claimant with uncontrolled type II diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, primary osteoarthritis of both knees, and degenerative disc disease, lumbar.[19]
September 2015 MRI of the cervical spine with an impression of “central disc protrusion at ¶ 6-C7” and results listed as “mild[] impinging upon the spinal cord” and “[d]egenerative changes . . . scattered throughout the cervical spine.”[20]
May 2015 x-ray of the lumbar spine with an impression of “degenerative arthritis” and results listed as “[v]ertebral bodies are intact and in good alignment. Moderate changes of degenerative arthritis are noted. Chronic disc disease is noted at ¶ 4-L5 and L5-S1.”[21]
• May 2015 MRI of the lumbar spine with an impression of “degenerative changes with left neural foraminal compromise at ¶ 4-5 and L5-S1” and results of “mildly compromised” left neural foramina “due to bony osteophytes and bulging discs. No ...

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