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Del Rio v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

June 20, 2017

YOLANDA G. DEL RIO, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This is a civil action seeking judicial review of an administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both parties having consented to trial on the merits before a United States Magistrate Judge, the case was transferred to this Court for trial and entry of judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Rule CV-72 and Appendix C to the Local Court Rules for the Western District of Texas.

         Plaintiff, Yolanda G. Del Rio, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, this Court orders that the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED.


         On June 19, 2014, Plaintiff filed her application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of November 29, 2013. (R:182-89). Her application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (R:99-100). Plaintiff's requested hearing was conducted on April 7, 2016. (R:44-57). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision on June 1, 2016, denying benefits. (R:18-43). On September 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. (R:1-8).


         Plaintiff presents the following issues for review:

1. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (Doc 24:4).
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence. (Doc 24:8).
3. Whether the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 24:2).


         I. Standard of Review

         This Court's review is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in evaluating the evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002); Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995) (per curiam). Substantial evidence must be “more than a mere scintilla[, ]” but can be less than a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted). The Commissioner's findings will be upheld if supported by substantial evidence. Masterson, 309 F.3d at 272. A finding of no substantial evidence will be made “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) (per curiam) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

         In applying the substantial evidence standard, the court may “not re-weigh the evidence, try the questions de novo, or substitute [its own] judgment for the Commissioner's, even if [it] believe[s] the evidence weighs against the Commissioner's decision.” Masterson, 309 F.3d at 272 (citation omitted). “Conflicts in the evidence are for the [Commissioner] and not the courts to resolve.” Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted).

         II. Evaluation Process

         To evaluate disability, the ALJ engages in a sequential five-step process: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment (“MDI”); (3) whether the claimant's impairment(s) meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1; (4) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.[1] If, at any step, the Commissioner finds that the claimant is or is not disabled, the five-step inquiry ends. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995).

         The ALJ must determine the claimant's RFC, the most an individual can still do despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p. To make this determination, the ALJ must consider all the record evidence and the claimant's abilities despite her physical and mental limitations. Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 462 (5th Cir. 2005). Furthermore, the ALJ must consider the limiting effects of an individual's impairments, even those that are non-severe, and any related symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1529, 404.1545(a)(3); SSR 96-98p. But, “[t]he relative weight to be given [to the] evidence is within the ALJ's discretion.” Chambliss v. Massanari, 269 F.3d 520, 523 n. 1 (5th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps of the analysis. Leggett, 67 F.3d at 564. If this burden is met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show there is other substantial gainful employment available that the claimant is capable of performing. Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 632 (5th Cir. 1989). The Commissioner may meet this burden by the use of opinion testimony of vocational experts or by the use of administrative guidelines provided in the form of regulations. Rivers v. Schweiker, 684 F.2d 1144, 1155 (5th Cir. 1982). If the Commissioner adequately points to potential alternative employment, the burden shifts back to the claimant to prove that she is unable to perform the alternative work. Anderson, 887 F.2d at 632-33.

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of: fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, and osteoarthritis. (R:26). The ALJ also found Plaintiff had non-severe upper respiratory infection, urinary tract infection, hyperlipidemia, thyroid cyst, urinary frequency, gastroenteritis/colitis, depression, and anxiety. (R:26-30). The ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. (R:30). The ALJ further found that the evidence provided little support for Plaintiff's testimony regarding her alleged side effects. (R:35). Upon considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations: she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch, and cannot crawl or climb. (R:30).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a Cashier II. (R:37). Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled from November 29, 2013, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (R:38).

         III. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Subjective Complaints

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in his credibility assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding her symptoms. (Doc. 24:4). Specifically, Plaintiff claims that none of the ALJ's reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's complaints were based on facts supported by medical evidence and were, instead, based solely on the ALJ's opinion and conjecture. (Id.). Thus, Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ's findings regarding her symptoms resulted in an inaccurate RFC, which tainted the remaining steps in the evaluation. (Doc. 24:5).

         Symptoms are defined as the individual's own description or statement of her physical or mental impairment. SSR 16-3p. In determining disability, the ALJ must consider “all symptoms and the extent to which symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence based on the requirements of 20 [C.F.R. § 404.1529(a)] and SSR 96-4p.” (R:30). The ALJ must determine (1) whether the individual has an MDI that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's alleged symptoms; and (2) whether the intensity and persistence of those symptoms limit an individual's ability. SSR 96-7p; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). However, an individual's statements of symptoms are not enough to establish disability. Id.

         When allegations are not substantiated by objective medical evidence, the ALJ may consider evidence of the following in the record to assess the credibility of Plaintiff's subjective symptoms:

1. The individual's daily activities;
2. The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the individual's pain ...

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