United States District Court, S.D. Texas
MARIA R. MANZANO
v. NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY
HANOVICE PALERMO UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Maria R. Manzano (“Ms. Manzano”) seeks review of
the denial of her request for disability and disability
insurance benefits under Title II 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. 11, 12, 13. The Court
DENIES Plaintiff's motion,
GRANTS the Commissioner's motion, and
DISMISSES the action with
Manzano is a 50 year old woman. R. 153. She last worked
as a small parts assembler at Kemlon Products and Development
Group from 2006 to 2011. R. 45-46, 159-60. She purportedly
left because she had arthritis and difficulty walking. R. 52.
On January 24, 2013, Ms. Manzano first filed an application
under Title II seeking benefits beginning on April 1, 2011,
when the effects of a 1996 hip surgery became disabling and
she stopped working. R. 27. She filed another application on
the same basis on February 14, 2013. R. 153-54. On May 17,
2013, the Commissioner denied Ms. Manzano's claim. R.
87-90. On May 21, 2013, Ms. Manzano requested reconsideration
of her claim, alleging her high blood pressure condition as
an additional basis for her claim. R. 92, 173-77. On June 28,
2013, her claim was again denied. R. 84, 93-95. On July 26,
2013, Ms. Manzano requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. 96.
Katherine W. Brown conducted a hearing on December 9, 2014.
R. 38-66. Ms. Manzano appeared by telephone. R. 27, 111. A
vocational expert, Mr. Michael L. Stinson, also testified. R.
38-66. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 47 years
old. R. 45. Although Ms. Manzano originally claimed the onset
date of her disability was April 1, 2011, at the hearing she
amended this date to November 5, 2012. R. 44. In addition to
the effects of her hip surgery and hypertensive blood
pressure, Ms. Manzano testified that arthritis of her hands,
fingers, and knees; headaches; and antihypertensive
medication side effects of dizziness, nausea, and fatigue
also contributed to her inability to work. R. 38-66. On March
27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision, denying Ms.
Manzano's application for benefits. R. 21-37.
22, 2015, Ms. Manzano requested the Appeals Council to review
the ALJ's decision. R. 17-18. On August 1, 2016, the
Appeals Council denied Ms. Manzano's request for review.
R. 4-11. On October 24, 2016, the Appeals Council sent Ms.
Manzano another letter notifying her that they received and
reviewed additional medical evidence regarding her claim, but
found no basis to reopen and change the ALJ's decision,
thereby rendering the ALJ's decision final. R. 1-3;
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). On November 22, 2016, Ms. Manzano commenced this
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
Id. Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial
of disability benefits is limited to two inquiries:
whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence;
and (2) 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).
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, 822-23 (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).
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. § 1382(c)(a)(3)(A);
Masterson, 309 F.3d at 271. The Commissioner follows
a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is
disabled, asking the following questions in sequence:
Is the claimant presently engaged in “substantial
gainful activity”? (Step One)
Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of
impairments that is “severe”? (Step Two)
Are the claimant's impairments of a severity that meets
or equals the criteria listed in the applicable
regulations? (Step Three)
Considering the claimant's residual functional
capacity, do the impairments prevent the claimant from
performing past relevant work? (Step Four)
Considering the claimant's residual functional capacity
and his age, education, and work experience, do the
impairments prevent the claimant from performing other
work? (Step Five)
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a); Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 447-48
(5th Cir. 2007). Before moving from Step Three to Step Four,
the Commissioner assesses a claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) based on “all
the relevant medical and other evidence” in the record.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
A claimant's RFC is the most she can still do despite her
physical and mental limitations. Id. §§
404.1545(a)(1); 416.945(a)(1). At Step Four, the Commissioner
uses the claimant's RFC to determine whether the claimant
can still perform past relevant work. The claimant bears the
burden of proof on the first four steps of this inquiry.
Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 462 (5th Cir.
2005). At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner,
who must show that, in light of the claimant's RFC, she
can perform other substantial work in the national economy.
Id. If the Commissioner makes that showing, the
burden shifts back to the claimant, who must rebut the
Commissioner's finding. Id.
ANALYSIS OF PLAINTIFF'S CHALLENGES TO THE ALJ'S
determined that Ms. Manzano was not disabled at Step Four of
the sequential analysis. R. 33. She found Ms. Manzano to have
a severe left hip injury, and a combination of numerous other
non-severe impairments: hypertension, headaches,
temporomandibular joint disorder (“TMJ”), neck
pain, obesity, and a knee injury. R. 29-30. However, the ALJ
found these impairments do not rise to the level of severity
of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. R. 30. She found Ms. Manzano has the RFC to
perform light work, including lifting or carrying up to
twenty pounds; standing, walking, or sitting for up to six
hours; unlimited ability to push and pull; and no other
limitations. R. 30. The ALJ determined Ms. Manzano's
statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of these symptoms were not entirely credible or not
fully supported by the medical evidence, and she would still
be capable of performing her past work as a small products
assembler. R. 33.
Manzano insists the ALJ erred because: (1) the ALJ's RFC
finding is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ
failed to consider Ms. Manzano's complaints; (3) the ALJ
failed to properly develop the record by failing to refer the
claim to a vocational rehabilitation agency or for
consultative examination; (4) the ALJ gave the non-examining
state agency physician's opinions more weight than
Plaintiff's treating physician's; and (5) the ALJ
used an inaccurate RFC assessment and presented incomplete
hypotheticals to the vocational expert.
Plaintiff claims the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported
by substantial evidence.
claims the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by
substantial evidence and is inconsistent with the record
evidence. Plaintiff argues “[t]he record indicates
Plaintiff's impairments could be significantly more
limiting than accounted for by the ALJ and restrict her
functional abilities to such an extent that she is unable to
perform light work on a sustained basis.”
Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment
(“MSJ”) at 5. Plaintiff contends she testified to
“problems sitting, standing, walking, and lifting due
to arthritis, knee problems, and continued problems with her
left hip after surgery” and “joint pains and knee
pain”. Plaintiff's MSJ at 6. She claims the medical
“a history of joint pains and arthritis for a few
years, which was noted as primarily affecting her knees, as
well as a more recent knee injury, and diagnoses of joint
pain, knee pain and back pain. Plaintiff's treating
physician opined that due to Plaintiff's hip problems,
joint pain, and arthritis, Plaintiff's lifting and
carrying, standing and walking, manipulative abilities and
environmental exposure is significantly more limited than
accommodated by the ALJ.”
Id. (citations omitted). The regulations provide
guidance on how the ALJ is to assess the Plaintiff's
determining whether you are disabled, we consider all of your
symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which your
symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the
objective medical evidence and other evidence. We will
consider all of your statements about your symptoms, such as
pain, and any description your medical sources or nonmedical
sources may provide about how the symptoms affect your
activities of daily living and your ability to work. However,
statements about your pain or other symptoms will not alone
establish you are disabled. There must be objective medical
evidence from an acceptable medical source that shows you
have a medical impairment(s) which could reasonably be
expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and
that, when considered with all of the other evidence
(including statements about the intensity and persistence of
your pain or other symptoms which may reasonably be accepted
as consistent with the medical signs and laboratory
findings), would lead to a conclusion that you are disabled.
… However, we will not reject your statements about
the intensity and persistence of your pain or other symptoms
or about the effect your symptoms have on your ability to
work solely because the available objective medical evidence
does not substantiate your statements. … [W]e will
carefully consider any other information you may submit about
C.F.R. § 404.1529(a), (c)(2)-(3).
Plaintiff's medical records reflect her physical
examinations were normal and fail to show an impact on daily
the listings of impairments that could be considered
disabling, impairments of the musculoskeletal system are
marked by “signs of limitation of motion or other
abnormal motion of the affected joint(s)” and/or
“inability to ambulate [or move] effectively.” 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Listing 1.01 et
seq. Ms. Manzano's medical records do not show such
limitations. Nor do the medical records document any such
complaints from Plaintiff. To the contrary, all of her
physical examinations were essentially normal; she had a normal
range of motion in her extremities; normal motor and sensory
functions, reflexes, gait, coordination, and upright
posture; and she was able to independently perform
all activities of daily life. See, e.g., Anthony v.
Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992). The records
do not reflect Plaintiff ever complained she was unable to
perform her daily activities or care for herself.
has not pointed to any evidence in the record that her hip
injury, in isolation or in combination with other conditions,
has had such a severe impact on her ability to work that she
cannot perform any work or could only perform sedentary work.
The medical evidence failed to show any significant
limitations on her activities. See Hollis v. Bowen,
837 F.2d 1378, 1387 (5th Cir. 1988). Her doctors never
directed her to restrict her physical activity; to the
contrary, they advised her to exercise, in part to manage her
hypertension.Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558,
565, 566 (5th Cir. 1995) (finding ALJ's decision to deny
disability benefits was supported by substantial evidence, in
part because the claimant's “doctors at no time
restricted his physical activity.”). Ms. Manzano has
not provided any explanation, ...