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Ihde v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Texas

September 5, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.




         Ashley Elizabeth Ihde (“Ihde”) brought this action against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sections 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Ihde requested review of the Commissioner's denial of Ihde's application for disability benefits and supplemental security income. This Court granted remand on a single issue, as explained herein.

         A. Procedural History

         Ihde sought Title II period of disability and disability insurance benefits as well as Title XVI supplemental security income on February 21, 2014. Administrative R. (“Admin. R.”) 12, ECF No. 14.[2] The Social Security Administration initially denied Ihde's applications on July 14, 2014 and then again on September 17, 2014 after reconsideration. Id. On October 13, 2014, Ihde submitted a request for a hearing which then was held on April 14, 2015. Id. On June 1, 2015, the hearing officer[3]determined that Ihde was not disabled and therefore qualified for neither disability insurance benefits nor supplemental security income. Id. at 20. The Appeals Council denied Ihde's request for review on October 2, 2015. Id. at 1-3.

         On December 4, 2015, Ihde filed a complaint in federal district court asking that the Court find that she is entitled to benefits or, in the alternative, remand the Social Security Administration's decision for further hearing. Compl. 2, ECF No. 3. The Commissioner answered on October 7, 2016, Answer, ECF No. 13, and the parties briefed the issues, Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 15; Pl.'s Reply Br. 1-3, ECF No. 19; Br. Supp. Commissioner's Decision (“Def.'s Br.”), ECF No. 18. On June 2, 2017, this Court heard oral arguments[4] and remanded the case to the hearing officer only to further consider the issue rising out of Dr. Cessna's opinion. Minute Entry, ECF No. 24.

         B. Factual Background[5]

         Ashley Ihde was born on September 22, 1984. Admin. R. 275. She was twenty-nine years old when she filed her applications for social security benefits, asserting that her disability had begun on August 30, 2009. See id. at 12, 275. Ihde graduated high school and completed training as a dental assisting apprentice. Id. at 280. Her work history includes employment as a food server, cashier, and retail sales clerk. Id. at 29-30, 281. Ihde asserts five conditions place limitations on her ability to work: anxiety, depression, paranoia, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder. Id. at 279.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         To uphold the factual determinations of the Social Security Commissioner, the Court must find that such determinations are supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and that no errors of law have occurred. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance, ” Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988), but “more than a mere scintilla . . . . [and that which] 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. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Salinas v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 345, 347 (5th Cir. 1981). To determine whether the Commissioner's factual determination is supported by substantial evidence, the Court must look to the administrative record as a whole. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994) (citing Haywood v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 1463, 1466 (5th Cir. 1989)). The Court cannot, however, “reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id.

         For benefit determinations, “[p]rocedural perfection in administrative proceedings is not required.” Rollins v. Astrue, 464 F. App'x 353, 358 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Mays v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1362, 1364 (5th Cir. 1988)). Accordingly, even if the Court finds error in the Commissioner's decision, if that error does not upset the substantial rights of the litigants, the Court may find the error harmless and decline to vacate judgement. See id. (quoting Bowen, 837 F.2d at 1364); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2111.

         B. Social Security Disability Standard

         A disability is “the inability to do 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.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). To establish whether a claimant meets this definition, the Social Security Administration uses a sequential five-step evaluation: 1) is the claimant engaging in “substantial gainful activity” that demonstrates no disability; 2) does the claimant have an impairment(s) that alone or combined is sufficiently medically severe to meet the duration requirement; 3) does the claimant's impairment(s) satisfy the duration requirement and equal or exceed an impairment in appendix 1; 4) can the claimant engage in past relevant work considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and 5) do the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC demonstrate that she can perform other work. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If the evaluator can make a determination about the claimant's disability status at any given step, then he does not proceed to the next step. Id.

         Between steps three and four of the disability evaluation, the evaluator assesses the claimant's RFC. Id. The RFC “is the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his or her] limitations, ” taking into account all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments. Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(1)-(2), 416.945(a)(1)-(2).

         C. The Hearing Officer's Decision

         In this case, the hearing officer evaluated Ihde's claim using the five-step process. Admin. R. 14-20. At steps one and two, he found that Ihde was not participating in substantial gainful activity and did have three severe impairments (obesity, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”)). Id. at 14. At step three, however, the hearing officer determined that although Ihde's impairments were severe, they did not reach the threshold of any appendix 1 impairments. Id. at 14-16. He concluded that Ihde had “the [RFC] to perform a reduced range of medium work, ” id. at 16, and that while Ihde would be unable to participate in past relevant work (step four), id. at 19, she would be capable of performing other jobs (step five), and was therefore not disabled for the purpose of acquiring benefits, id. at 19-20.

         D. Ihde's Challenges

         Ihde challenges three aspects of the Commissioner's decision: 1) the hearing officer's failure to specify the weight accorded to Nurse Garcia or Dr. Cessna's opinions, Pl.'s Br. 10-13, 2) the existence of other evidence in the record contradicting the hearing officer's conclusions, id. at 13-15, and 3) the hearing officer's alleged use of his lay opinion in relying on evidence not available to the state agency and state medical professionals, id. at 16-17. While Ihde's challenges are ...

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