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Lara v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, San Angelo Division

March 27, 2018

DIANA S. LARA, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Diana Lara seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security, who denied her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This case was assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 7). The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. (Doc. 13). After considering all the pleadings, briefs, and administrative record, this Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is not based on legal error or unsupported by substantial evidence, is therefore affirmed, and Lara's case is dismissed.


         Lara filed an application for DIB on June 28, 2013, alleging impairments that were disabling as of April 12, 2013.[1] That application was denied initially on June 28, 2013 and after reconsideration on January 27, 2014. Lara requested a hearing, which was held before an Administrative Law Judge on June 16, 2015. The ALJ issued a decision on July 17, 2015 finding Lara not disabled.

         Specifically, the ALJ found during step one that Lara had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since April 12, 2013. (Doc. 12-3, 18). At step two, the ALJ determined Lara had the impairments of osteoarthritis and major depressive disorder at the date of last insurance. (Doc. 12-3, 18). However, the ALJ decided those impairments were not severe under the regulations and that Lara therefore had no severe impairments during the insured period. (Doc. 12-3, 18). Accordingly, he held that she "was not under a disability ... [between] the alleged onset date [and] the date last insured." (Doc. 12-3, 22). Lara applied to the Appeals Council, which denied review on September 30, 2016. Therefore, the ALJ's ruling is the Commissioner's final decision and is properly before the court for review. Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 334 (5th Cir. 2005) ("[t]he Commissioner's final decision includes the Appeals Council's denial of [a claimant's] request for review.").


         According to her pleadings, testimony at the administrative hearing, and the administrative record, Lara was 51 years old and living with her husband and two teenaged children at the time of the administrative hearing. Her previous employment consisted of administrative and secretarial work in medical environments.


         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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(c)(a)(3)(A), 423 (d)(1)(A) (2012). '"Substantial gainful activity' is work activity involving significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit." Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 n.2 (5th Cir. 2002); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a)-(b).

         To evaluate a disability claim, the Commissioner follows 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). "The claimant bears the burden of showing [she] 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, 501 F.3d at 448. The Commissioner must assess a claimant's residual functional capacity before proceeding to steps 4 and 5. Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005). Regulations define RFC as "the most [a claimant] can still do despite [their] limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1).

         This Court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to an inquiry into whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Waters v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 716, 718 (5th Cir. 2002) (citing Estate of Morris v. Shalala, 207 F.3d 744, 745 (5th Cir. 2000)). Substantial evidence "is more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance" and includes "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000); Watson v. Barnhart, 288 F.3d 212, 215 (5th Cir. 2002). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings, then the findings are conclusive and the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Newton, 209 F.3d at 452.

         The Court may not reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's even if the Court believes the evidence weighs against the Commissioner's decision. Master son, 309 F.3d at 272. Moreover, "[c]onflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner and not the courts to resolve." Newton, 209 F.3d at 452.


         Lara raises four issues on appeal. She believes the ALJ improperly considered a retrospective opinion from a treating physician, erred in finding fewer severe impairments than a state agency consulting physician, failed to properly consider a third-party function ...

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