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Mathews v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Sherman Division

March 28, 2018




         Plaintiff Brenda Joyce Mathews (“Plaintiff”) brings this appeal under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the parties' consent to proceed before the magistrate judge (Dkt. 12), this case has been transferred to the undersigned for all proceedings and entry of judgment. See Dkt. 13. After carefully reviewing the briefs submitted by the parties, as well as the evidence contained in the administrative record, the Court finds the Commissioner's decision should be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1382c, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2013, due to arthritis, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, heart problems, high blood pressure, and “numbness in extremities.” Transcript (“Tr.”) at 16, 195-196, 212. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing regarding Plaintiff's applications on June 30, 2015, which was attended by Plaintiff and her non-attorney representative. A vocational expert (“VE”) and two medical experts (“ME”) also appeared and testified. Tr. at 34-61.

         On August 12, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision (the “ALJ Decision”) concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of the Act. Tr. at 10-33. After considering the evidence and testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's morbid obesity; bilateral knee arthritis; status post bilateral total knee replacement; early degenerative arthritis in bilateral hands; history of high blood pressure; sleep apnea; flat foot deformity; depression; and situational anxiety qualified as severe impairments under the Act, but concluded that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments (severe or non-severe) did not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in the regulations for presumptive disability. Tr. at 18-20; 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. Tr. at 19-20.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff with a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for a full range of sedentary work as defined under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), along with no complex instructions or complex judgments; no complex tasks; and no lengthy complex social interaction involving complex judgments. Tr. at 20-21. Based on testimony from the VE and Plaintiff's descriptions of her past jobs, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work of customer service representative (sedentary and semi-skilled, SVP 4) as actually and generally performed. Tr. at 27-28. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Tr. at 28.

         On October 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Tr. at 1-5. Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff then filed the instant action for review by this Court.


         Title II provides for federal disability insurance benefits while Title XVI provides for supplemental security income for the disabled. Judicial review of the denial of disability benefits under Section 205(g) of the Act, 42, U.S.C. § 405(g), is limited to “determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the proper legal standards were used in evaluating the evidence.” Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 435 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990)); Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988) (citing Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)). Accordingly, the Court “may not reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [the Court's] judgment for the [Commissioner's], even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner's] decision.” Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435 (quoting Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988)); see Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993); Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992); Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985). Rather, conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide. Spellman, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)); Anthony, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992) (citing Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983)). A decision on the ultimate issue of whether a claimant is disabled, as defined in the Act, rests with the Commissioner. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 455-56 (5th Cir. 2000); SSR 96-5p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34471 (July 2, 1996).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance-that is, enough that a reasonable mind would judge it sufficient to support the decision.” Pena v. Astrue, 271 Fed. App'x 382, 383 (5th Cir. 2003) (citing Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994)). Substantial evidence includes four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the plaintiff's age, education, and work history. Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1302 n.4 (5th Cir. 1987). If supported by substantial evidence, the decision of the Commissioner is conclusive and must be affirmed. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). However, the Court must do more than “rubber stamp” the ALJ's decision; the Court must “scrutinize the record and take into account whatever fairly detracts from the substantiality of evidence supporting the [Commissioner's] findings.” Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985). The Court may remand for additional evidence if substantial evidence is lacking or “upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Latham v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 482, 483 (5th Cir. 1994).

         A claimant for disability has the burden of proving a disability. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 125 (5th Cir. 1991). The Act defines “disability” as an “inability 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 can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormality which is demonstrable by acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner must utilize a five-step, sequential process. Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. A finding of “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step of the sequential process ends the inquiry. Id.; see Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435 (citing Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475). Under the five-step sequential analysis, the Commissioner must determine at step one whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. At step two, the Commissioner must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments are severe. At step three, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix I. Prior to moving to step four, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), or the most that the claimant can do given his impairments, both severe and non-severe. Then, at step four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant's impairments are severe enough to prevent him from performing his past relevant work. Finally, at step five, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant can perform other work available in the local or national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(b)-(f) and 404.1520(b)(1)(f). An affirmative answer at step one or a negative answer at steps two, four, or five results in a finding of “not disabled.” See Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. An affirmative answer at step three, or an affirmative answer at steps four and five, creates a presumption of disability. Id.

         The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five if the claimant shows she cannot perform her past relevant work. Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 632-33 (5th Cir. 1989) (per curiam).


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