Jones v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER. Ordered that the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. Signed by Magistrate Judge Robert H. Walker on 9/6/17. (JCH)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:16CV271-RHW
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Acting Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Betty Jones filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her application for
Social Security Disability benefits. Doc. . The parties have filed memoranda in support of
their respective positions. Doc.  & . Jones filed her application for disability benefits
alleging disability beginning August 29, 2013, resulting from osteoarthritis, asthma, high blood
pressure, depression, herniated disc, pinched nerve, acid reflux, and back fusion. Doc.  at
104-06, 120. Jones was 54 years old at the alleged onset of disability, with an 8th grade
education, and past relevant work as a snack bar attendant and snack bar manager. Id. at 55,
Jones’ application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. at 58-72. She
requested and was granted a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 29-57.
The ALJ found that Jones had severe impairments of obesity, sciatica, and lumbar degenerative
disc disease with stenosis. Id. at 16. The ALJ further found that Jones retained the residual
functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of light work. Id. at 17. The ALJ concluded
that Jones was capable of performing past relevant work as a snack bar attendant; therefore, she
was not disabled. Id. at 22. The Appeals Council denied Jones’ request for review. Id. at 5-8.
Having exhausted her administrative proceedings, Jones filed the instant lawsuit. Jones now
argues that (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of her subjective complaints;
and (2) the ALJ’s RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence.
Law and Analysis
The federal district court reviews the Commissioner’s decision only to determine whether
the final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the
proper legal standards to evaluate the evidence. Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir.
1999); Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995). If the court determines the
Commissioner’s decision to be supported by substantial evidence, then the findings are
conclusive and the court must affirm the decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390
(1971). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This standard requires supporting evidence that is “‘more
than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.’” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison
Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The court is not permitted to “reweigh the evidence in
the record, nor try any issues de novo, nor substitute our judgment for the judgment of the
[Commissioner], even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner’s] decision.”
Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5th Cir. 1988). “‘Conflicts in the evidence are for the
[Commissioner] and not the courts to resolve.’” Brown, 192 F.3d at 496 (quoting Selders v.
Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)). While the court may alter the Commissioner’s
decision if based upon faulty legal analysis, the court should defer to the Commissioner’s legal
conclusions if they are within a permissible meaning of the statutory or regulatory language.
Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 843–44 (1984).
A claimant bears the burden of proving the existence of a medically determinable
impairment that has prevented the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful employment.
42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(5). The Social Security Administration (SSA)
utilizes a five-step sequential process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a), § 404.920(a). Under this analysis, the ALJ may decide a claimant is disabled if he
finds that (1) the claimant is not employed in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a
severe, medically determinable impairment; (3) the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one
of the listings in appendix 1 to subpart P of § 404; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from
performing any past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant’s ability to
adjust to performing any other work. Id.
The claimant initially bears the burden of proving disability under the first four steps, but
the burden shifts to the SSA for the fifth step. Chapparo v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 1008, 1010 (5th Cir.
1987). Therefore, if the claimant proves that he is unable to perform past relevant work, the SSA
must demonstrate that the claimant can perform another occupation that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy. The burden then shifts back to the claimant to establish that
he cannot perform this alternative employment. Id.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her subjective complaints and
credibility. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that she presented significant evidence of a medically
determinable impairment capable of producing disabling pain. She further asserts that the ALJ
selectively viewed the evidence or failed to recognize Jones’ reported limitations. Finally, Jones
argues that the ALJ improperly discredited the function report submitted by her husband.
While the ALJ must consider a claimant’s subjective complaints, she is allowed to
examine the objective medical evidence to test claimant’s credibility. Johnson v. Heckler, 767
F.2d 180, 182 (5th Cir. 1985). Subjective evidence of symptoms will not take precedence over
conflicting medical evidence. Harper v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 92, 96 (5th Cir. 1989). A claimant’s
subjective complaints may be discounted by an ALJ if they are inconsistent with other evidence
in the record. Dunbar v. Barnhart, 330 F.3d 670, 672 (5th Cir. 2003). Moreover, judgment as to
the credibility of testimony is the sole province of the ALJ. See Carrier v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d
243, 247 (5th Cir. 1991). The Fifth Circuit has held that the ALJ’s credibility determination is
entitled to considerable deference. See Falco v. Sullivan, 27 F.3d 160, 164 (5th Cir. 1994).
The ALJ concluded that Jones’ sciatica and lumbar degenerative disc disease could
reasonably be expected to cause some limitations, but she found that Jones’ allegations of
symptoms and limitations were not consistent with the objective medical evidence or her
functional ability. Doc.  at 20. The ALJ cited to numerous instances where the record
contradicted Jones’ allegations of disabling pain. For example, the ALJ noted that in a Function
Report she indicated that she was able to do dusting, wash dishes, and loads of laundry. Id. at
19. In a medical record dated June 14, 2013, she reported to Dr. Terry Smith that on the
previous day she had mowed the yard for about one hour on a riding mower. Id. The ALJ also
relied on a medical report from July 1, 2013, indicating that Jones reported no complaints and
that she had improved since her last visit. Id. Her records also showed that she spent at least 20
minutes, five times a week, walking. Id. On January 2, 2013, she reported no complaints. Id.
On April 2, 2013, she reported doing much better since her back surgery, had no current
complaints, and was feeling good. Id. A medical report from Dr. Shawn Mei dated August 9,
2013, showed on examination no pain in muscles or joints, no limitation of range of motion and
no paresthesia or numbness. Id. at 20. As of July 14, 2013, Jones reported she had stopped
using a walker and cane. Id. at 21. At several office visits subsequent to her February 2013 back
surgery Jones reported doing much better and feeling good. Id. Although Jones has pointed to
evidence that might support her allegations of disabling pain, these arguments go to the weight of
the evidence. The ALJ weighed the conflicting evidence and relied on evidence, both from
Jones and from the medical records, that contradicted her allegations of disabling pain. This
Court will not re-weigh the evidence. Rather, the Court upholds the ALJ’s decision regarding
Jones’ credibility, because it is supported by substantial evidence.
Residual Functional Capacity
Jones argues that the ALJ erred in determining her RFC. According to Jones, the ALJ
relied on his own reading of the medical records and failed to obtain a medical assessment
addressing Jones’ physical capabilities and mental functioning. Although not cited by Jones, she
appears to argue that the ALJ failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis of her RFC. The
Fifth Circuit held, in the context of Social Security Ruling 96-8p, that an ALJ must perform a
function-by-function analysis of a claimant’s capacity to perform sustained work-related physical
and mental activities. Myers v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 617, 620-22 (5th Cir. 2001). The Fifth Circuit
explained that the ALJ should take into consideration the medical evidence from all of the
claimant’s treating doctors and present good cause why any such evidence is rejected. Id. at 621.
Subsequent to Myers, the Fifth Circuit clarified that an RFC based in part on a state
examiner’s function-by-function analysis of a claimant’s limitations satisfies the legal standard
set forth in Myers and SSR 96-8p. See Onishea v. Barnhart, 116 Fed. App’x 1, 2 (5th Cir. 2004)
(unpublished). In another opinion, where claimant argued that the Commissioner failed to
conduct a function-by-function analysis, the Fifth Circuit held that “[a]lthough the Commissioner
did not consider each function of [claimant’s] past work, there was no conflicting evidence and
substantial evidence supported the Commissioner’s finding.” Williams v. Barnhart, 70 Fed.
App’x 183, 184 (5th Cir. 2003) (unpublished). Then later in Porter v. Barnhart, the Fifth Circuit
concluded that the ALJ complied with SSR 96-8p, and the function-by-function analysis, by
considering all of the medical evidence and claimant’s subjective complaints of pain. 200 Fed.
App’x 317, 319 (5th Cir. 2006) (unpublished).
In the instant case, the ALJ considered all of the medical evidence and Jones’ subjective
complaints of pain and concluded that that Jones is capable of light duty work. Doc.  at 17.
The exertional limitations of light work are defined as an individual who could lift and/or carry
20 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently, sit for six hours during an eight-hour
work day, and stand and/or walk for six hours during an eight-hour work day. 20 C.F.R. §
416.967(b). The ALJ recited these limitations in her discussion of Jones’ exertional limitations.
Doc.  at 21. The ALJ determined that the objective and clinical evidence did not support
limitations to the degree alleged by Jones. Id. at 19. The ALJ gave a detailed account of the
medical evidence and concluded that the record did not support a finding of “significantly
limited range of motion, muscle spasms, muscle atrophy, motor weakness, sensation loss, or
reflex abnormalities that are associated with intense and disabling pain.” Id. at 21.
The medical records of Jones’ treating physicians, Dr. Smith and Dr. Mei, support the
ALJ’s conclusion. In a disability assessment dated August 25, 2013, Dr. Smith opined that Jones
“has the ability to work at light medium duty”. Doc.  at 211. Dr. Smith’s records from July
19, 2013, indicate that Jones displayed no muscle wasting, no joint pain or stiffness, “normal
strength” and “no difficulties in walking”. Id. at 214. On August 9, 2013, Dr. Mei also reported
no pain in Jones’ muscles or joints, no limitation of range of motion, no paresthesia or numbness,
and no weakness. Id. at 237. In that same report, he measured Jones’ upper extremity strength at
5/5 and lower extremity strength at 4.5/5. Id. Jones does not point to any medical opinion
evidence from any source finding that she has greater exertional limitations.
The ALJ also relied extensively on Jones’ own description of her limitations in assigning
her RFC. Doc.  at 19-21. In her Function Report, Jones reported that she was able to do
dusting, wash dishes, and loads of laundry. Id. at 19. On June 14, 2013, she reported to Dr.
Smith she was able to mow the yard for about one hour on a riding mower. Id. On July 1, 2013,
Jones reported that she walks at least 20 minutes five times per week. Id. Based on the
foregoing, the Court finds that the ALJ’s assignment of exertional limitations is supported by
With respect to mental limitations, the ALJ considered the opinions of Amy Hudson,
Ph.D, an agency psychological consultant, and Karen Hulett, M.D., an agency medical
consultant. Doc.  at 17. The only two mental health professionals to opine on the subject
have concluded that Jones did not have a severe mental impairment. Dr. Hudson opined that
Jones’ affective disorders were not severe. Id. at 59-65. Dr. Hulett affirmed this determination.
Id. at 70-71. The ALJ assigned “great weight” to Dr. Hulett’s opinion. Id. at 17. The ALJ
further relied on Jones’ own assessment to find that she did not suffer from a severe impairment
related to mental functioning. Id. at 17. Specifically, Jones indicated that she can function
independently and carry out daily activities, she has friends and visits with relatives. Id.
Because Jones did not suffer a severe impairment related to her mental functioning, the ALJ did
not include any mental limitations in the RFC assessment. Based on the foregoing, the Court
finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision not to include mental functioning in
the RFC with respect to Jones’ depression.
Jones also argues that the ALJ failed to account for side effects of strong pain medication.
She points to a report from July 19, 2013, where Jones reported to Dr. Smith that medications
made her feel “sluggish”. Doc.  at 213. On August 9, 2013, she complained to Dr. Mei that
Neurontin caused her to feel lethargic. Id. at 237. On September 13, 2013, Dr. Mei suspected
that Jones’ headaches might be related to medications. Id. at 305. In her decision, the ALJ
stated that she considered the side effects of Jones’ medications. Id. at 21. In her application for
benefits, Plaintiff failed to indicate in the space provided that any of her medications caused side
effects. Id. at 158. At the ALJ hearing, Jones did not mention any adverse side effects from her
medication. Other than a couple of isolated remarks in the medical record that she felt sluggish
or lethargic and had headaches, Jones’ medical records and testimony do not mention side
effects. Jones failed to allege in her application for disability or at the hearing before the ALJ
that the side effects of her medications were disabling. Hence, there was no basis in the record
for the ALJ to explore in more detail those side effects. See Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 566
(5th Cir. 1995).
Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is
SO ORDERED AND ADJUDGED, this the 6th day of September, 2017.
/s/ Robert H. Walker
ROBERT H. WALKER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?