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Manzano v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Texas

March 28, 2018




         Plaintiff 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 prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Manzano is a 50 year old woman. R. 153.[1] 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         On May 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 civil action.


         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:

         (1) 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).

         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, 822-23 (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).

         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. § 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:

         (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 past relevant work? (Step Four)

         (5) 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.


         The ALJ 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.

         Ms. 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.

         1. Plaintiff claims the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff 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 records reflect:

“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 disability claims:

         “In 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 your symptoms.”

         20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a), (c)(2)-(3).

         a. Plaintiff's medical records reflect her physical examinations were normal and fail to show an impact on daily activities.

         Under 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;[2] she had a normal range of motion in her extremities;[3] normal motor and sensory functions, reflexes, gait, coordination, and upright posture;[4] and she was able to independently perform all activities of daily life.[5] 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.

         Plaintiff 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.[6]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, ...

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