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Clark v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Sherman Division

September 18, 2017

BRITNEY A CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CHRISTINE A. NOWAK, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Britney A. Clark (“Plaintiff”) brings this appeal under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for child's disability benefits and supplemental security income [Dkt 1; Dkt. 19; Dkt. 24]. After reviewing the Briefs submitted by the Parties, as well as the evidence contained in the Administrative Record, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be AFFIRMED.

         BACKGROUND

         This is an appeal from a denial of child's disability benefits and supplemental security income (SSI). On June 15, 2012, Plaintiff Britney A. Clark applied for child's disability benefits and SSI [TR at 37, 40-41, 52, 118-130, 138].[1] In her applications, Plaintiff alleged she has been disabled since December 20, 2010, due to clinical depression, anxiety, asthma, migraine headaches, and sinus problems [TR at 137]. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon request for reconsideration [TR 63-87].

         Plaintiff then requested a hearing on the Commissioner's denial before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on February 21, 2014 [TR at 32-62]. Plaintiff, her mother and a vocational expert (VE) testified at the hearing. On January 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications and finding her not disabled at Step Five of the sequential evaluation process [TR at 9-27]. The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review [TR at 1-5, 9-27]. Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited. In an appeal under § 405(g), this Court must review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in evaluating the evidence. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence “means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, ” Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988), and is “evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support the decision.” Morris v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 333, 334 (5th Cir. 1988). This Court cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1995). Additionally, any conflicts in the evidence, including the medical evidence, are resolved by the ALJ, not the reviewing court. Carry v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 479, 484 (5th Cir. 1985). If the Court finds substantial evidence to support the decision, the Court must uphold the decision. See Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990). To that end, the Commissioner is entrusted to make determinations regarding issues, including weighing inconsistent evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). The Fifth Circuit has expressly held that the ALJ - as fact finder - and not the Court has the sole responsibility for weighing the evidence. Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 790 (5th Cir. 1991) (citing Bradley v. Bowen, 809 F.2d 1054, 1057 (5th Cir. 1987). The Court considers four elements of proof when determining whether there is substantial evidence of a 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) the claimant's age, education, and work history. Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995).

         FINDINGS OF THE ALJ

         1. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment ... 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). To determine if a claimant is able to engage in “substantial gainful activity” (and therefore if he is disabled), the Commissioner follows a five-step process: First, a claimant who is engaged in substantial gainful employment at the time of his disability claim is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant is not disabled if his alleged impairment is not severe, without consideration of his residual functional capacity, age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if the alleged impairment is severe, the claimant is considered disabled if his impairment corresponds to a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, a claimant with a severe impairment that does not correspond to a listed impairment is not considered to be disabled if he is capable of performing his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Finally, a claimant who cannot return to his past work is not disabled if he has the residual functional capacity to engage in work available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Under the first four steps of the analysis, the burden lies with the claimant to prove disability and at the last step the burden shifts initially to the Commissioner. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). If the Commissioner “fulfills his burden of pointing out potential alternative employment, the burden then shifts back to the claimant to prove that he is unable to perform the alternate work. Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 618 (5th Cir. 1990) If at any step the Commissioner finds that the claimant is or is not disabled, the inquiry terminates. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995).

         2. ALJ's Disability Determination

         Here, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not meet the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act and further that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 20, 2010, the alleged onset date, and any work done after that date was not performed at a substantial gainful activity level [TR at 12]. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of migraines, obesity and major depressive order [TR at 12]. At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 [TR at 15]. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work[2] and further: (1) Claimant can sit, stand, and/or walk for about 6 hours in an eight-hour workday; (2) She is not limited in pushing or pulling (including the operation of foot and/or hand controls) with the upper and lower extremities; (3) She has no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations; (4) From the mental standpoint, claimant retains the ability to learn, understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and tasks, and in such a work setting and environment: can use judgment in making simple work-related decisions; can respond and relate appropriately with others, such as supervisor and co-works, but is limited to only incidental contact with co-worker and the public; can maintain attention and concentration for at least two hour intervals; and can adapt to and deal with simple changes in work setting and environments [TR at 17]. Continuing the analysis, the ALJ then determined Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but found at step five that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity allowed her to perform work in the national economy, including as an eyeglass packager, semi-conductor loader and hand packager [TR at 25-26]. Based on this determination, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled before or after December 20, 2010, through the date of decision [TR at 26].

         ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Plaintiff presents three issues for consideration: (1) whether the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's RFC for medium work with mental limitations, including whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's depression and obesity in making the RFC finding, (2) whether proper VE testimony supports the ALJ's Step Five finding, and (3) whether the ALJ was prejudiced [Dkts. 19 at 2; 24 at 1]. The Court has considered each ground for relief in turn, and concludes the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's application for benefits was warranted.

         1. Whether the ALJ Erred in Assessing Plaintiff's RFC

         Plaintiff appears to allege that the ALJ did not properly consider her depression and/or obesity in assessing her RFC. Residual functional capacity is defined as the most that a person can still do despite recognized limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1) (2003). It “is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis.” Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). An individual's RFC should be based on all of the relevant evidence in the case record, including opinions submitted by treating physicians or other acceptable medical sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3) (2012); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. Moreover, determining a claimant's mental RFC involves consideration and analysis of the evidence and “draw[ing] meaningful inferences and allow[ing] reasonable conclusions about the individual's strengths and weaknesses.” Cline v. Astrue, 577 F.Supp.2d 835, 848 (N.D.Tex.2008) (citing SSR 85-16 (PPS-120), 1985 WL 56855, at *2 (S.S.A. Nov. 30, 1984)). To reiterate, the ALJ “is responsible for assessing the medical evidence and determining the claimant's residual functional capacity.” Perez v. Heckler, 777 F.2d 298, 302 (5th Cir.1985). A reviewing court must defer to the ALJ's decision when substantial evidence supports it, even if the court would reach a different conclusion based on the evidence in the record. Leggett, 67 F.3d at 564.

         Here, after making a credibility determination regarding Plaintiff's alleged symptoms and limitations, and evaluating all the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work with certain mental limitations: From the mental standpoint, claimant retains the ability to learn, understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and tasks, and in such a work setting and environment: can use judgment in making simple work-related decisions; can respond and relate appropriately with others, such as supervisor and co-works, but is limited to only incidental contact with co-worker and the public; can maintain attention and concentration for at least two hour intervals; and can adapt to and deal with simple changes in work setting and environments [TR at 17]. When assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ fully considered Plaintiff's mental health treatment history, noting that the record evidence first reflected a diagnosis of major depressive order in 2011 [TR at 13, 21, 272-317, 437-454], that Plaintiff's records reflected no treatment for any depressive condition in the year following her alleged onset date until she presented at Collin County MHMR Center on November 1, 2011 [TR at 13, 272-273], that the MHMR records further reflected that medication helped stabilize and improper her mental health condition [TR at 13, 21]. The ALJ further highlighted that Plaintiff only received mental health treatment for about a year and that no mental health records were presented for the years 2013 or 2014 [TR at 21]; and that while Plaintiff testified to suicide attempts and other depressive symptoms her testimony was not entirely credible [TR at 21]. In addition, the ALJ also gave significant weight to the opinion of the state agency medical consultant, Jean Germain [TR 13-14, 23]. Dr. Germain completed a mental RFC assessment in which Dr. Germain assessed Plaintiff as markedly limited in the ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions, but moderately limited or not significantly limited in all other mental activities evaluated [TR at 430-432]. After considering such limitations, Dr. Germain assessed that Plaintiff could understand, remember and carry out only simple instructions, make simple decisions, attend and concentrate for extended periods, interact appropriately with co-workers and supervisors, and respond appropriately to changes in routine work setting [TR at 14, 432]. State agency medical consultant Susan Thompson later affirmed Dr. Germain's mental assessment [TR at 468-469]. Plaintiff's treatment records as a whole support the ALJ's mental RFC assessment.

         Turning to Plaintiff's claim that the ALJ also did not properly consider her obesity. Social Security Ruling (SSR) 02-1P places obese individuals in three categories based on their BMI. SSR 02-1P, 2000 WL 628049 at *2. Level I obesity includes BMIs of 30.0-34.9; Level II includes BMIs of 35.0-39.9; and Level III, or “extreme” obesity, includes BMIs that are greater than or equal to 40. Id. Individuals falling in the Level III category are at the “greatest risk for developing obesity-related impairments.” Id. Obesity must be considered at Steps 2-5 of the sequential evaluation process. Id. at *3; Campos v. Astrue, No. 5:08-CV-115-C, 2009 WL 1586194 at *3-4 (N.D. Tex. Jun 8, 2009); Johnson v. Astrue, No. H-08-3658, 2010 WL 148411 at *17-18 (S.D. Tex. Jan 11, 2010). The ALJ must consider the effects of obesity in conjunction with the other medically determinable impairments. Thompson v. Astrue, 232 Fed.App'x 421, 424 (5th Cir. 2007); SSR 02-1P, 2000 WL 628049. When determining a claimant's RFC, the ALJ should assess the “effect obesity has upon the individual's ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical activity within the work environment.” SSR 02-1P, 2000 WL 628049 at *6. Here, the ALJ properly considered evidence of Plaintiff's obesity: finding Plaintiff suffered from a severe impairment of obesity [TR at 12], had a BMI falling within Level II [TR at 14-16], that Plaintiff did not claim her activities were limited by her obesity [TR at 16], that Plaintiff had not been prescribed medication for any weight problem [TR at 16], and ultimately having considered the totality of the record evidence accounted for her obesity by restricting her to medium work [TR at 15-17].

         In sum, the Court finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment, and that ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's depression and obesity in assessing her RFC.

         2. Whether Proper VE Testimony Supports the ...


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