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Beltran v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

September 20, 2017

JUAN BELTRAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          BARBARA M. G. LYNN, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Juan Beltran seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the hearing decision is reversed and remanded.

         Background

         Mr. Beltran alleges that he is disabled as a result of diabetes, neuropathy in his hands and feet, high blood pressure, and visual impairments. See Administrative Record [Dkt. No. 13 (“Tr.”)] at 49-54, 209. After his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits were denied initially and on reconsideration, Mr. Beltran requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing was held on October 17, 2014. See Id. at 43-65. At the time of the hearing, Mr. Beltran was 47 years old. See Id. at 36. He has a sixth grade education and past work experience as a forklift operator, material handler, construction laborer, wirer/electrician helper, and sheet rock installer. See Id. at 36-37. Mr. Beltran has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2013. See Id. at 32.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Beltran was not disabled and therefore not entitled to disability or SSI benefits. See Id. at 37. Although the medical evidence established that Mr. Beltran suffered from diabetes and neuropathy, the ALJ concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. See Id. at 32-33. The ALJ further determined that Mr. Beltran had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work but could not return to his past relevant employment. See Id. at 33, 36. Given his age, education, and exertional capacity for light work, the ALJ determined that Mr. Beltran was not disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. See Id. at 37.

         Mr. Beltran appealed that decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed.

         Mr. Beltran then filed this action in federal district court. In multiple grounds, Mr. Beltran argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by improperly rejecting his treating physician's opinions, evaluating the severity of his visual impairments, and assessing his residual functional capacity - specifically, by failing to conduct the function-by-function analysis required by SSR 96-8p - and that the ALJ's findings that Mr. Beltran has the RFC to perform the full range of light work and concerning his ability to communicate in English are not supported by substantial evidence.

         The Court determines that the hearing decision is reversed and this case is remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Legal Standards

         Judicial review in social security cases is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether Commissioner applied the proper legal standards to evaluate the evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014); Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); accord Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923. The Commissioner, rather than the courts, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, including weighing conflicting testimony and determining witnesses' credibility, and the Court does not try the issues de novo. See Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995); Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 237 (5th Cir. 1994). This Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's but must scrutinize the entire record to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports the hearing decision. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988). The Court “may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated for [the] decision.” Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923.

         “In order to qualify for disability insurance benefits or [supplemental security income], a claimant must suffer from a disability.” Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A disabled worker is entitled to monthly social security benefits if certain conditions are met. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act defines “disability” as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or last for a continued period of 12 months. See Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985).

         “In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner conducts a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether (1) the claimant is presently working; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the social security regulations; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other substantial gainful activity.” Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 447-48 (5th Cir. 2007).

         The claimant bears the initial burden of establishing a disability through the first four steps of the analysis; on the fifth, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there is other substantial work in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Audler, 501 F.3d at 448. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987).

         In reviewing the propriety of a decision that a claimant is not disabled, the Court's function is to ascertain whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's final decision. The Court weighs four elements to determine whether there is substantial evidence of disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) subjective ...


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