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Gonzalez v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

June 12, 2017




         This Order concerns Plaintiff Shirley Gonzalez's request for review of the administrative denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the SSA. This Court has jurisdiction to review a decision of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). The undersigned has authority to enter this Order as both parties have consented to magistrate jurisdiction [#13, #15]. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). After considering Plaintiff's Opening Brief [#18], Defendant's Brief in Support of the Commissioner's Decision [#21], the transcript (“Tr.”) of the SSA proceedings [#14], the other pleadings on file, the applicable case authority and relevant statutory and regulatory provisions, and the entire record in this matter, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision finding Plaintiff not disabled, and that no reversible legal error was committed during the proceedings. The Commissioner's decision is accordingly AFFIRMED.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Sherry Gonzalez filed her applications for DIB and SSI on January 28, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of December 17, 2012. (See Tr. 150-157.) Plaintiff was 50 years old on the date she alleges she became disabled, and was 52 years old at the time of Administrative Law Judge's decision. (Tr. 25.) Plaintiff has a high school education, possesses a certification as a nurse's aide, and has prior work experience as a certified nurse's aide and as an assistant manager in retail. (Tr. 25-26.)

         Plaintiff alleged the following impairments in her initial claim for disability: high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), asthma, back and knee problems, stomach problems, and knee problems. (Tr. 63.) Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on April 19, 2013 and, upon reconsideration, on June 20, 2013. (Tr. 111, 121.) Following the denial of her claim, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 9). Plaintiff and her attorney attended the administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ben Barnett on September 17, 2017. (Tr. 35-62.) Plaintiff and vocational expert (“VE”) Jesus Duarte testified at the hearing. (Id.)[1]

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for DIB and SSI benefits on January 20, 2015. (Tr. 10-27.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the SSA, and accordingly, applied the five-step sequential analysis required by the SSA regulations. At step one of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of December 17, 2012.[2] (Tr. 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post hemilaminotomy and microdisectomy; degenerative joint disease of the knees status post right total knee arthropathy and revision; obesity; osteoarthritis; and COPD. (Tr. 15-16.) However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's plantar fasciitis and mental impairments of adjustment disorder with depressed mood, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a history of alcohol abuse were not severe. (Tr. 16-17.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of these impairments met or medically equal the impairments of one of the listed impairments in the applicable Social Security Regulations. (Tr. 18.)

         Before reaching step four of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the physical and mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following exceptions: standing and/or walking limited to two hours in an eight hour day; only occasional climbing of ramps/stairs; never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; frequently balance; only occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; limited to frequent bilateral overhead reaching; and is to avoid concentrated exposure to irritants (fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation). (Tr. 18-25.) In making this finding, the ALJ determined that while Plaintiff possessed medically determinable severe impairments, Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 20-24.) The ALJ also declined to afford Plaintiff's primary care provider's opinion substantial and controlling weight, finding that her opinions regarding Plaintiff's physical limitations were primarily based upon Plaintiff's subjective assessments regarding her abilities and limitations and were not supported by the provider's objective findings or by the medical record. (Tr. 24-25.)

         At step four, after considering the RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 25.) At step five, however, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, educational factors, prior work experience, and RFC, as well as the testimony of the VE, she could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy including: diet clerk (DOT 245.587-010), outpatient administrative clerk (DOT 205.362-080), and billing clerk (DOT 214.362-042). (Tr. 26.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of the Act, and therefore was not entitled to receive either DBI or SSI. (Id.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's finding, but the Appeals Council denied her request for review on May 12, 2016. (Tr. 1-4.) On July 1, 2016, after exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed suit, seeking review of the administrative determination [#1].

         II. Governing Legal Standards

         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing the denial of benefits, the Court is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner's decision applied the proper legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence. Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995); 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021-22 (5th Cir. 1990) (quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)). A court should weigh four elements in determining if substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination: (1) the objective medical facts; (2) the diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Martinez, 64 F.3d at 174. “‘[N]o substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a ‘conspicuous absence of credible choices' or ‘no contrary medical evidence.'” Abshire v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 638, 640 (5th Cir. 1988) (quoting Hames, 707 F.2d at 164). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000). Conflicts in the evidence and credibility assessments are for the Commissioner, not the court, to resolve. Id.

         While substantial deference is afforded the Commissioner's factual findings, the ALJ's legal conclusions, and claims of procedural error, are reviewed de novo. See Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 235 (5th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1120 (1995); Carr v. Apfel, 133 F.Supp.2d 476, 479 (N.D. Tex. 2001).

         B. Entitlement to Benefits

         The term “disability” means the inability to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled only if her physical or mental impairment or impairments are so severe that she is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, participate in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy- regardless of whether such work exists in the area in which she lives, whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether she would be hired if she applied for work. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         C. Evaluation Process and Burden of Proof

         SSA regulations require that disability claims be evaluated according to a five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial gainful activity” means “the performance of work activity involving significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit.” Newton, 209 F.3d at 452-53 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a)-(b)). An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found disabled regardless of her medical condition or her age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         The ALJ then determines whether the claimant has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that is severe under the second step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir. 1985). “An impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality having such minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience.” Stone, 752 F.2d at 1101 (internal quotation omitted). An individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will not be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         Under the third step, an individual who has an impairment that meets or is medically equal to the criteria of a listed impairment in Appendix 1 (“the Listings”) of the regulations will be considered disabled without the consideration of other vocational factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the claimant does not qualify under the Listings, the evaluation continues to the fourth step. Before commencing the fourth step, however, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is a “multidimensional description of the work-related abilities” a claimant retains despite medical impairments. 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461-62 (5th Cir. 2005).

         At the fourth step, the ALJ reviews the RFC assessment and the demands of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If an individual is capable of performing the work she has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled” will be made. Id. If an individual's impairment precludes her from performing her past relevant work, the fifth and final step evaluates the claimant's ability, given her residual capacities, her age, education, and work experience, to do other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If an individual's impairment precludes her from performing any other type of work, she will be found to be disabled. Id.

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps of the evaluation process. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). Once the claimant satisfies her burden under the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that there is other gainful employment available in the national economy that the claimant is capable of performing. Greenspan, 38 F.3d at 236. This burden may be satisfied either by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines of the regulations or by expert vocational testimony or other similar evidence. Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1304 (5th Cir. 1987). If the Commissioner adequately points to potential alternative employment, the burden shifts back to the claimant to prove that she is unable to perform that work. Anderson v. Sullivan, ...

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