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West-Lewis v. Berryhill

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

January 31, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Zina West-Lewis 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 should be reversed and remanded.


         Ms. West-Lewis alleges that she is disabled due to a variety of ailments including migraines, blackouts, a stroke, knee and back pain, schizophrenia, injuries resulting from a car accident, memory loss, fainting and depression. See Dkt. No. 10 (Administrative Record [“Tr.”]) at 233, 265-66, 290). After her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, Ms. West-Lewis requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing was held on July 8, 2015. See Id. at 75-102. At the time of the hearing, Ms. West-Lewis was 52 years old. She is a high school graduate and has past work experience as a general office clerk, sales clerk, and teacher's assistant. Ms. West-Lewis has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 12, 2013.

         The ALJ found that M. West-Lewis was not disabled and therefore not entitled to SSI benefits. Although the medical evidence established that Ms. West-Lewis suffered from affective disorder, seizure disorder, paranoid schizophrenia and borderline intellectual functioning, the ALJ concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. The ALJ further determined that Ms. West-Lewis had the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work but could not return to her past relevant employment. Relying on a vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Ms. West-Lewis was capable of working as a garment sorter, marker, and inspector counter - jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Given her age, education, and exertional capacity for light work, the ALJ determined that Ms. West-Lewis Plaintiff was not disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines.

         M. West-Lewis appealed that decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed.

         Ms. West-Lewis then filed this action in federal district court. Ms. West-Lewis challenges the hearing decision on three general grounds: (1) the ALJ used the wrong legal standard in evaluating the severity of her impairments; (2) the ALJ failed to consider all of her medically determined impairments; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate medical opinion evidence.

         The undersigned concludes that the hearing decision should be reversed and this case remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further proceedings consistent with these findings and conclusions.

         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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