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Lara v. Berryhill

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

November 28, 2017




         Before the Court[1] in this social security appeal is Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 15) and Defendant's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Law in Support (Document No. 16). After considering the cross motions for summary judgment, Defendant's Response to Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 17), the administrative record, the written decision of the Administrative Law Judge dated November 19, 2015, and the applicable law, the Court ORDERS, for the reasons set forth below, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Alexander Raphael Lara ("Lara") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of an adverse final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") on his claim for disability insurance benefits. In one claim, Lara argues that "Defendant failed to consider all of the evidence." The Commissioner, in contrast, argues that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision, that the decision comports with applicable law, and that the decision should be affirmed.

         II. Procedural History

         On or about December 23, 2013, Lara filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), claiming that he had been unable to work since July 30, 2013, as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, a back injury, arthritis, and photophobia (Tr. 277-279; 337). The Social Security Administration denied his application at the initial and reconsideration stages. After that, Lara requested a hearing before an ALJ. The Social Security Administration granted his request and the ALJ, Mary Elizabeth Johnson, held a hearing on January 7, 2015, at which Lara's claims were considered de novo. (Tr. 34-69). Thereafter, on January 26, 2015, the ALJ issued her decision finding Lara not disabled. (Tr. 125-135).

         Lara sought review of the ALJ's adverse decision with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council will grant a request to review an ALJ's decision if any of the following circumstances are present: (1) it appears that the ALJ abused his discretion; (2) the ALJ made an error of law in reaching his conclusion; (3) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's actions, findings or conclusions; or (4) a broad policy issue may affect the public interest. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470. On May 13, 2015, the Appeals Council granted Lara's request for review and remanded the case to an Administrative Law Judge for further evaluation (Tr. 141-142). Upon remand, a psychological evaluation was conducted of Lara by J.L. Patterson, Ph.D., and a subsequent hearing was held before ALJ Robert N. Burdette on October 15, 2015. On November 19, 2015, ALJ Burdette issued his decision finding Lara not disabled (Tr. 12-26). The Appeals Council subsequently found no further basis for review (Tr. 1-3), and the ALJ's November 19, 2015, decision thus became final.

         Lara filed a timely appeal of the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both sides have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. The appeal is now ripe for ruling.

         III. Standard for Review of Agency Decision

         The court's review of a denial of disability benefits is limited "to determining (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, and (2) whether the Commissioner's decision comports with relevant legal standards." Jones v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 692, 693 (5th Cir. 1999). Indeed, Title 42, Section 405(g) limits judicial review of the Commissioner's decision: "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The Act specifically grants the district court the power to enter judgment, upon the pleadings and transcript, "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing" when not supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C.§ 405(g). While it is incumbent upon the court to examine the record in its entirety to decide whether the decision is supportable, Simmonsv. Harris, 602F.2d 1233, 1236 (5th Cir. 1979), the court may not "reweigh the evidence in the record nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner] even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner's] decision." Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5th Cir. 1988); Jones v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 692, 693 (5th Cir. 1999); Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391 (5th Cir. 1985). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve. Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992).

         The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence, " as used in the Act, 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 and less than a preponderance." Spellmanv. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993). The evidence must create more than "a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no 'substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a 'conspicuous absence of credible choices' or 'no contrary medical evidence.'" Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983).

         IV. Burden of Proof

         An individual claiming entitlement to disability insurance benefits under the Act has the burden of proving his disability. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 344 (5th Cir. 1988). The Act i defines disability as the "inability to engage in 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The impairment must be proven through medically accepted clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). The impairment must be so severe as to I limit the claimant in the following manner:

he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job ...

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