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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

January 10, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Karen Johnson seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the hearing decision is reversed.


         Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to a variety of ailments, including major depressive disorder. See Administrative Record [Dkt. Nos. 11 & 12 (“Tr.”)] at 85-86. After her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing was held on March 18, 2014. See Id. at 71- 123. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 50 years old. See Id. at 78. She has a tenth grade education, see Id. at 81, and has no past relevant work experience, see Id. at 82. Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 8, 2012. See Id. at 59, 82.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI benefits. Although the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from major depressive disorder, recurrent, with psychotic features; cannabis abuse; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; mild degenerative joint disease in the knees; hypertension; obesity; and degenerative joint disease in the shoulders, the ALJ concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. See Id. at 59. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work, see Id. at 61-62, and Plaintiff has no past relevant work, see Id. at 64. Relying on a vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of working as a bakery worker on a conveyer line, plastics inspector or hand packager, or small products assembler-- jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Id. at 64-65.

         Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed.

         In a single ground for relief, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of her treating and examining physicians.

         The Court determines that the hearing decision must be reversed and this case remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Legal Standards

          Judicial review in social security cases is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether Commissioner applied the proper legal standards to evaluate the evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014); Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); accord Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923. The Commissioner, rather than the courts, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, including weighing conflicting testimony and determining witnesses' credibility, and the Court does not try the issues de novo. See Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995); Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 237 (5th Cir. 1994). This Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's but must scrutinize the entire record to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports the hearing decision. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988). The Court “may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated for [the] decision.” Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923.

         “In order to qualify for disability insurance benefits or [supplemental security income], a claimant must suffer from a disability.” Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A disabled worker is entitled to monthly social security benefits if certain conditions are met. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act defines “disability” as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or last for a continued period of 12 months. See Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985). The Commissioner has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process that must be followed in making a disability determination:

1. The hearing officer must ascertain whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is working is not disabled regardless of the medical findings.
2. The hearing officer must determine whether the claimed impairment is “severe.” A “severe impairment” must significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. This determination must be made solely on the basis of the medical evidence.
3. The hearing officer must decide if the impairment meets or equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. The hearing officer must make this ...

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