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Masood v. Colvin

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

September 14, 2017




         Before the Court[1] in this social security appeal is Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 12) and Brief in Support (Document no. 13), as well as Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 14) and Brief in Support (Document No. 15). After considering the cross motions for summary judgment, Defendant's Response to Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgement (Document No. 16), the administrative record, the written decision of the Administrative Law Judge dated September 26, 2014, and the applicable law, the Court ORDERS, for the reasons set forth below, that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and this case is REMANDED pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further development of the administrative record and subsequent proceedings.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Shaikh Masood ("Masood") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the adverse final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") on his claim for disability insurance benefits. In his appeal, Masood argues that: (1) "The Appeals Council's finding that new evidence submitted to it was not new and material evidence, is contrary to the law:" (2) "The Agency failed to consider the opinion evidence of Dr. Adnan Rafiq in accordance with Agency policy, regulations, and Fifth Circuit Precedent, thereby dismissing the account of the greater limitations established by Dr. Rafiq;" (3) "The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to account for Plaintiffs left shoulder impairment and hearing loss in the Residual Function Capacity ("RFC") determination:" (4) "The ALJ erred by failing to develop the record with regard to Plaintiffs mental impairments:" and (5) "The ALJ erred when he failed to adhere to unambiguous Agency policy requiring review of the record by a qualified psychologist in cases involving mental impairment." Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 15) at 4, 9, 11, 14, 18 and 20. The Commissioner, in contrast, argues that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision, that the decision comports with the applicable law, that the ALJ had no duty to further develop the record beyond what had been established, and that the decision should be affirmed.

         II. Procedural History

         Masood filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits on March 7, 2013, claiming that he has been disabled since December 21, 2010, as a result of hearing problems, arthritis, back problems, memory loss, neck injury, and an immobile right hand (Tr. 126, 193-94, 233). The Commissioner denied the application initially, and on reconsideration. Masood's subsequent request for a hearing before the ALJ was granted, and a hearing was held before the ALJ, Allen G. Erickson, on May 8, 2014, at which plaintiffs claims were considered de novo (Tr. 39-100). After the hearing and upon consideration of the medical records provided and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Masood's claim for disability benefits (Tr. 126-133).

         Masood sought review of the unfavorable decision with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council will grant a request for review of an ALJ's decision if: (1) the ALJ appears to have abused his or her discretion; (2) there is an error of law; (3) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence; (4) there is a broad policy or procedural issue that may affect the public interest; (4) new and material evidence is received and the decision is contrary to the weight of all the evidence now in the record, including this new and material evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470. The Appeals Council denied Masood's request for review on March 2, 2016 (Tr. 22-24), stating therein that the new evidence Masood provided as the basis for review was not new evidence, but copies of Exhibit 4F and 1 OF within the record (Tr. 23). As such, the Appeals Council affirmed the decision by the ALJ, thereby making the ALJ's decision final (Tr. 23).

         Masood has filed a timely appeal of the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C § 405(g). The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment (Document Nos. 12 & 14). The appeal is now ripe for ruling.

         III. Standard of Review of Agency Decision

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 405(g), a review of the final decision by the Social Security Administration is limited "to determining (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, and (2) whether the Commissioner's decision comports with the relevant legal standards." Jones v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 692, 693 (5th Cir. 1999). If the findings by the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, then these findings "are conclusive and the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed." Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995). The Act grants the district courts the power to enter judgement, upon the pleadings and transcript, "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the case for a rehearing" when not supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). We weigh four elements of proof when determining whether there is a substantial evidence of disability: "(1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) his age, education and work history." Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 126 (5th Cir. 1991). Though the court has a duty to examine the record fully when rendering a decision, it is not within the court's discretion to "reweigh the evidence in the record nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [its] judgement for that of the [Commissioner] even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner's] decision." Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5 Cir. 1988). The term "substantial evidence, " as used within the Act, has been defined by the United States Supreme Court 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, less than a preponderance." Hames v Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983). Furthermore, such evidence creates more than "a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no 'substantial evidence' will be found where there is a 'conspicuous absence of credible choices' or 'no contrary medical evidence.'" Id.

         IV. Burden of Proof

         To be entitled to disability insurance benefits, the claimant must establish that he or she is disabled. As defined by the Act, a person is disabled when he or she is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expect to.. .last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(1)(A).

         This disability determination is accomplished by the ALJ through administering a five-step procedure as mandated by the Social Security Act. The rules governing this evaluation process are illustrated cogently in Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194 (5th Cir. 1999):

First, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity. Second, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe. An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" if it "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Third, the claimant's impairment must meet or equal an impairment listed in the appendix to the regulations. Fourth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from returning to his past relevant work. Fifth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any relevant work, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience. At steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to show he is disabled. If the claimant acquits this responsibility, at step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there is ...

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