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Galvan v. Berryhill

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

February 20, 2018

MARIA GALVAN, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Maria Galvan (“Galvan”) seeks review of the denial of her request for supplemental security income payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”).

         The Parties consented to have this Court conduct all proceedings in this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and filed cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 10, 12, 16. For the reasons given below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion, GRANTS the Commissioner's motion, and DISMISSES the action with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Galvan has a high school education and limited work experience; she worked as a cashier for three different employers between 1988 and 1994, then briefly worked at a daycare in 2006[1]before quitting to care for her disabled daughter. R. 53, 186-187, 197, 213.[2] On September 26, 2012, Galvan filed an application under Title XVI for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits alleging she became disabled beginning on February 27, 2012 when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. R. 176, 197. The Commissioner denied her claim. R. 101. Galvan requested reconsideration of her claim, alleging her condition had worsened and she now suffered from cancer, sleep apnea, fibroids, diabetes, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and thyroid problems. R. 111. Her claim was again denied. R. 109.

         Galvan then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. R. 137-138. At the time of her hearing before Administrative Law Judge Paul W. Schwarz (“the ALJ”) on March 11, 2014, Galvan was 46 years old. R. 29, 49-100. Plaintiff testified at the hearing, as did a medical expert, Woodward Janese, M.D., and a vocational expert, Karen Nielsen, Ph.D., both of whom testified on behalf of the state. R. 49-100. The ALJ issued a decision on June 18, 2014, denying Galvan's application for benefits. R. 26-41. On October 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Galvan's request for review after finding there was no basis for one, rendering the ALJ's decision final. R. 1-6; see Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106 (2000) (explaining that when the Appeals Council denies the request for review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act provides that an individual may seek judicial review of “any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which [s]he was a party.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In performing that review:

“The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner . . ., with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commission . . . as to any facts, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”

Id. Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits is limited to two inquiries: first, whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence; and second, whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in evaluating the evidence. See Id. (“The findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any facts, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .”); Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence” means “that quantum of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 131, 135 (5th Cir. 2000). It is “something more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002).

         A reviewing court may not reweigh the evidence in the record, retry the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner, not the courts, to resolve. Id. At the same time, however, judicial review must not be “so obsequious as to be meaningless.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The “substantial evidence” standard is not a rubber stamp of the Commissioner's decision. It involves more than a search for evidence supporting the Commissioner's findings. Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985); Singletary v. Brown, 798 F.2d 818, 822-223 (5th Cir. 1986) (“[T]he substantial evidence test does not involve a simple search of the record for isolated bits of evidence which support the [Commissioner's] decision.”). Rather, a reviewing court must scrutinize the record as a whole, taking into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the evidence supporting the Commissioner's findings. See Cook, 750 F.2d at 393. A court “may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated for [the] decision.” Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014).

         To qualify for disability benefits, a plaintiff must prove she is disabled. A person is disabled if she is “unable 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Masterson, 309 F.3d at 271. The Commissioner must follow a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled, asking the following questions in sequence:

(1) Is the claimant presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity”? (Step One)
(2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that is “severe”? (Step Two)
(3) Are the claimant's impairments of a severity that meets or equals the criteria listed in the applicable regulations? (Step Three)
(4) Considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, do the impairments prevent the claimant from performing ...

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