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Worth v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 10, 2019




         This 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.

         Procedural History

         On 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).

         Plaintiff filed his Complaint [1] 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.

         Sequential Evaluation Process and ALJ Findings

         In 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.

         Before 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).

         In this 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.[1] 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.

         Next, 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.

         Standard of Review and Legal Principles

         Judicial 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 omitted).

         The 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).

         A 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).

         Law and Analysis

         In his initial brief [24] 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 [34], 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 ...

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