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Oestreich v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Fort Worth Division

April 27, 2017

ALISHA NICOLE OESTREICH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER ACCEPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          REED O'CONNOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The United States Magistrate Judge issued his Report and Recommendation (“R. & R.”) in this case. See R. & R., ECF No. 18. Plaintiff timely filed objections. See Obj. to R. & R., ECF No. 19. The Court has concluded a de novo review of those portions of the proposed findings to which an objection was made. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). Having reviewed the motion, the applicable law, and the record before the Court, the Court finds that the R. & R. in this case should be and is hereby ACCEPTED and Plaintiff's objections OVERRULED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This factual recitation is taken from the R. & R. in this case. See R. & R., ECF No. 18. Plaintiff Alisha Nicole Oestreich (“Plaintiff” or “Oestreich”) applied for social security disability insurance benefits on February 4, 2013, alleging disability impairments as of January 1, 2010. Id. at 1. Oestreich's application was denied on April 4, 2013, and was again denied on reconsideration on July 7, 2013. Id. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) but was found not to be disabled following the June 6, 2014 hearing. Id. Oestreich then sought review from the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on October 29, 2015. Id. at 2. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision constituted the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). See Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 334 (5th Cir. 2005). Finally, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the denial decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), with the case being referred to United States Magistrate Judge E. Scott Frost pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). R. & R. 1, ECF No. 18.

         The Magistrate Judge's R. & R. recommends that the decision of the ALJ be affirmed and Plaintiff's complaint be dismissed. Id. at 9. Plaintiff objects to the R. & R., arguing that: (1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to her symptoms of pain or to explain how her daily activities undermined her credibility in relation to her pain-related claims; and (2) the ALJ's classification of her rheumatoid arthritis as a nonsevere impairment constituted prejudicial error. Obj. to R. & R., ECF No. 19.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to whether the Commissioner's position is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied proper legal standards in evaluating the evidence. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994); 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(C)(3). Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and as being such relevant and sufficient evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). In applying the substantial evidence standard, the reviewing court does not re-weigh the evidence, retry the issues, or substitute its own judgment, but rather, scrutinizes the record to determine whether substantial evidence is present. Greenspan, 38 F.3d at 236. A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if there is a conspicuous absence of credible evidentiary choices or contrary medical findings to support the Commissioner's decision. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988). “The Commissioner, not the court, has the duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts in the evidence, and make credibility choices.” Carrier v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d 105, 109 (5th Cir. 1991).

         The Social Security Administration uses a five-step process to determine whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The steps are followed in order, and if at any step the Commissioner determines that the claimant is or is not disabled, the evaluation does not go on to the next step. Id. The five steps consider: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the medical severity of the claimant's impairments; (3) whether the claimant's medical impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria listed in the Listing of Impairments; (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity and past relevant work; and (5) whether the combination of the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience allow for adjustments to be made to permit the claimant to work. Id. If the impairment is severe but does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the Commissioner must conduct a residual functional capacity assessment. Id. § 404.1520(e).

         The scope of judicial review of a decision under the supplemental security income program is identical to that of a decision under the social security disability program. Davis v. Heckler, 759 F.2d 432, 435 (5th Cir. 1985). Moreover, the relevant law and regulations governing the determination of disability under a claim for disability insurance benefits are identical to those governing the determination under a claim for supplemental security income. Id. Thus, the Court may rely on decisions in both areas without distinction in reviewing an ALJ's decision. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         In this case, the ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process. See R. & R. 1-2, ECF No. 18. The ALJ determined: (1) Oestreich had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2010; (2) Oestreich had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and degenerative joint disease; (3) Oestreich's severe impairments did not meet and were not equivalent to any listed impairments; (4) Oestreich could not perform any past relevant work; and (5) Oestreich could perform a sufficient number of jobs in the national economy. Id.

         In challenging the Magistrate Judge's affirmance of the ALJ's denial of her disability claims, Oestreich argues that: (1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to her symptoms of pain or to explain how her daily activities undermined her credibility in relation to her pain-related claims; and (2) the ALJ's classification of her rheumatoid arthritis as a nonsevere impairment constituted prejudicial error. Obj. to R. & R., ECF No. 19. The Court will now examine Oestreich's arguments in turn.

         A. Proper Weight Given to Pain-Induced Symptoms

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to her symptoms of pain as well as to explain the rationale for finding that her daily activities weakened her credibility regarding the level, persistence, and effects of her pain. Id. at 1-2. However, there is ample evidence that the ALJ did consider Plaintiff's pain symptoms when making the disability determination but ...


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