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Young v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

July 21, 2017




         Before the Court[1] in this social security appeal is Plaintiffs Motion For Summary Judgment (Document No. 11), Defendant's Cross-Motion For Summary Judgment (Document No. 12), Memorandum In Support of Defendant's Cross-Motion For Summary Judgment (Document No. 13), and Defendant's Reply to Plaintiffs Cross-Motion For Summary Judgment (Document No. 14). Having considered the motions for summary judgment, the administrative record, the written decision of the Administrative Law Judge, and the applicable law, the Court ORDERS, for the reasons set forth below, that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration is REMANDED pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff James Lavaughn Young ("Young") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of an adverse final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Young argues that substantial evidence does not support the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision because the ALJ (1) failed to consider Young's blurry vision as a severe impairment and (2) failed to properly apply the controlling law in assessing Residual Functioning Capacity (RFC). The Commissioner, in contrast, contends that (1) there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision; (2) the decision comports with applicable law; and (3) that the decision should therefore be affirmed.

         II. Procedural History

         Young applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on January 7, 2014, claiming that he had been unable to work since January 7, 2014 as a result of sickle cell disease, problems walking, problems sitting, and problems with vision. (Tr. 224). The Social Security Administration denied his application at the initial and reconsideration stages. Subsequently, Young requested a hearing before an ALJ. The Social Security Administration granted his request and the ALJ, Susan J. Soddy, held a hearing on September 17, 2015, at which Young's claims were considered de novo. (Tr. 32-61). Thereafter, on March 16, 2016, the ALJ issued the decision finding Young not disabled. (Tr. 10-23).

         Young sought review of the ALJ's adverse decision with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council will grant a request to review an ALJ's decision if any of the following circumstances are present: (1) it appears that the ALJ abused his discretion; (2) the ALJ made an error of law in reaching his conclusion; (3) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's actions, findings or conclusions; or (4) a broad policy issue may affect the public interest. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470. On June 25, 2016, the Appeals Council found no basis for review. (Tr. 1-4). The ALJ's decision thus became final.

         Young filed a timely appeal of the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both sides have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, each of which has been fully briefed. The appeal is now ripe for ruling.

         III. Standard of Review of Agency Decision

         The court's review of a denial of disability benefits is limited "to determining (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, and (2) whether the Commissioner's decision comports with relevant legal standards." Jones v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 692, 693 (5th Cir. 1999). Title 42, Section 405(g) limits judicial review of the Commissioner's decision: "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The Act specifically grants the district court the power to enter judgment, upon the pleadings and transcript, "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing" when not supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). While it is incumbent upon the court to examine the record in its entirety to decide whether the decision is supportable, Simmons v. Harris, 602 F.2d 1233, 1236 (5th Cir. 1979), the court may not "reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner] even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner's] decision." Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5th Cir. 1988); see also Jones, 174 F.3d at 693; Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391 (5th Cir. 1985). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve. Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992).

         The United States Supreme Court defines "substantial evidence, " as used in the Act, to be "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and less than a preponderance." Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d. 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993). The evidence must create more than "a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no 'substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a 'conspicuous absence of credible choices' or 'no contrary medical evidence.'" Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983).

         IV. Burden of Proof

         An individual claiming entitlement to disability insurance benefits under the Act has the burden of proving his disability. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 344 (5th Cir. 1988). The Act defines disability as 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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The impairment must be proven through medically accepted clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). The impairment must be severe as to limit the claimant in the following manner:

he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied to work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The mere presence of impairment is not enough to establish that one is suffering from a disability. Rather, a claimant is disabled only if he is "incapable of engaging in any substantial gainful activity." Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 293 (5th Cir. 1992) (quoting Milam v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 1284, 1286 (5th Cir. 1986)).

         The Commissioner applies a five-step sequential process to decide disability status:

1. If the claimant is presently working, a finding of "not disabled" must be made;
2. If the claimant does not have a "severe impairment" or combination of impairments, he will not be ...

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