United States District Court, W.D. Texas
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
WILLIAM G. YOUNG, DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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. 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
officerdetermined 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.
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 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.
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.
Standard of Review
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
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.
Social Security Disability Standard
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.
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),
The Hearing Officer's Decision
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.
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 ...