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Wilkerson v. Berryhill

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

March 23, 2017

DANNY T. WILKERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID L. HORAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Danny T. Wilkerson 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 remanded.

         Background

         Wilkerson alleges that he is disabled due to a variety of ailments, including “fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, among other things.” Dkt. No. 16 at 6. After his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing was held on September 24, 2014. At the time of the hearing, he was 50 years old. He is a high school graduate and does not have past relevant work as that term is defined in the Commissioner's regulations. He has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 9, 2012.

         The ALJ found that Wilkerson was not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI benefits. Although the medical evidence established that he suffered from fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, anxiety, and social phobia, among other conditions, the ALJ concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. The ALJ further determined that he “ha[d] the residual functional capacity to sit up to six hours and stand up to six hours in an eight-hour day, ... to lift ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally, occasionally climb, balance, bend, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, ... [and] occasionally interact with the general public, and with supervisors and coworkers.” Administrative Record [Dkt. No. 12] (“Tr”) at 25.

         Relying on a vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Wilkerson was capable of working as a photocopy operator, housekeeper, and routing clerk - jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Given his age, education, and exertional capacity for light work, the ALJ determined that he was not disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines.

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

         He then filed this action in federal district court. He challenges the hearing decision on three general grounds: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Deno Barroga; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of an examining psychologist, Dr. Julie Duncan, PhD; and (3) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's findings with respect to Wilkerson's residual functional capacity (“RFC”).

         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 the 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)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). 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).

         “In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner conducts a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether (1) the claimant is presently working; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the social security regulations; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other substantial gainful activity.” Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 447-48 (5th Cir. 2007).

         The claimant bears the initial burden of establishing a disability through the first four steps of the analysis; on the fifth, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there is other substantial work in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Audler, 501 F.3d at 448. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987).

         In reviewing the propriety of a decision that a claimant is not disabled, the Court's function is to ascertain whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's final decision. The Court weighs four elements to determine whether there is substantial evidence of disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history. See Martinez, 64 F.3d at 174.

         The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the facts relating to a claim for disability benefits. See Ripley, 67 F.3d at 557. If the ALJ does not satisfy this duty, the resulting decision is not substantially justified. See Id. However, the Court does not hold the ALJ to procedural perfection and will reverse the ALJ's decision as not supported by substantial evidence where the claimant shows that the ALJ failed to fulfill the duty to adequately develop the record only if that failure prejudiced Plaintiff, see Jones v. Astrue, 691 F.3d 730, 733 (5th Cir. 2012) - that is, only if Plaintiff's substantial rights have been affected, see Audler, 501 F.3d at 448. “Prejudice can be established by showing that additional evidence would have been produced if the ALJ had fully developed the record, and that the additional evidence might have led to a different decision.” Ripley, 67 F.3d at 557 n.22. Put another way, Plaintiff “must show that he could and would have adduced evidence that might have altered the result.” Brock v. Chater, 84 F.3d 726, 728-29 (5th Cir. 1996).

         Analysis

         I. The ALJ erred when assigning Dr. Barroga's ...


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