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Ayala v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Fort Worth Division

March 8, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Francisco Ayala (“Ayala”) filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the denial by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) of his application for disability insurance benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). ECF No. 1. After considering the pleadings, briefs, and the administrative record, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that United States District Judge Reed O'Connor REVERSE the Commissioner's decision and REMAND this action for further proceedings.



         Ayala filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on August 1, 2016, alleging a disability onset date of November 14, 2014. Transcript (“Tr.) 18. The Commissioner denied his application initially on October 24, 2016, and on reconsideration on December 12, 2016. Id. Ayala requested a hearing, which was held on April 18, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Brock Cima. Id. Present at the hearing were Ayala, his attorney, and Todd M. Harden, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). Id. The ALJ issued his decision on May 10, 2017, finding that Ayala was not disabled. Tr. 28.

         In his decision, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis. At step one, he found that Ayala had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 12, 2016, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 21, Finding 3. At step two, the ALJ determined that Walker had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. Id., Finding 4. At step three, the ALJ found that Ayala did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P. Tr. 23, Finding 5. In particular, the ALJ concluded that Ayala had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b). Tr. 23, Finding 6. The ALJ found specifically that Ayala could lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit for six hours, stand for six hours, walk for six hours, and push and pull as much as he could lift or carry. Id. The ALJ further found that Ayala could climb ramps and stairs occasionally but could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and that he could coocasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Ayala was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 26, Finding 7. At step five, the ALJ found that there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Ayala could perform. Tr. 27, Finding 1. In particular, the ALJ noted the jobs of hand packager, mail clerk, and cashier II, based on the testimony of the VE. Id. As a result of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Ayala had not been under a disability from July 12, 2016, through May 10, 2017. Tr. 23, Finding 10.

         The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Ayala's request for review on September 6, 2017. Tr. 1-5. Therefore the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision and is properly before the Court for review. See Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 336 (5th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he Commissioner's final decision includes the Appeals Council's denial of a request for review.”).


         Ayala was born on December 16, 1973. Tr. 13, 54. He has a high-school education. Tr. 51. Ayala served in the military, including three tours overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. Tr. 45. At the time of his hearing on April 18, 2017, he had served in the military for nine years and was in the Army Reserve. Tr. 40, 46. Ayala also had previous work as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. Tr. 41-42.


         Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 404 et seq. of the SSA controls the disability insurance program as well as numerous regulatory provisions concerning disability insurance. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. The SSA defines a 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); McQueen v. Apfel, 168 F.3d 152, 154 (5th Cir. 1999).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to disability benefits, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). For step one, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity to obtain disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial gainful activity” means work activity involving the use of significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 n.2 (5th Cir. 2002). For step two, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); see also Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1100-03 (5th Cir. 1985). For step three, disability exists if the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments (“Listing”) found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Before proceeding to step four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's RFC-“the most the claimant can still do despite his physical and mental limitations.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). For step four, if the claimant's medical status alone does not constitute a disability, the impairment must prevent the claimant from returning to his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). For step five, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any work, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197-98 (5th Cir. 1999). “The claimant bears the burden of showing that [he] is disabled through the first four steps of the analysis; on the fifth, the Commissioner must show that there is other substantial work in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 448 (5th Cir. 2007). “If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant must then prove he in fact cannot perform the alternate work.” Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 131, 135 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Crowley, 197 F.3d at 198.)

         The Court's decision is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the decision. Audler, 501 F.3d at 447. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a responsible mind might accept to support a conclusion. It is more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance. A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision.” Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000)). The Court may neither reweigh the evidence in the record nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's, but it will carefully scrutinize the record to determine if evidence is present. Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988); Harris, 209 F.3d at 417. “Conflicts in the evidence are for the [Commissioner] and not the courts to resolve.” Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999)).

         IV. ...

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