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Nordin v. Commissioner, SSA

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

March 28, 2018




         Plaintiff brings this appeal for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After reviewing the Briefs submitted by the Parties, as well as the evidence contained in the administrative record, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be REMANDED.


         On March 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”), under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), alleging an onset of disability date of September 30, 2009 [TR 251-58]. Plaintiff claimed disability because of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion surgery, spondyoarthritis, Ehlers Danlos Syndome, dengerative disc disease of the cervical and thoracic spine, depression, and anxiety [TR 12-13]. Plaintiff was born on November 12, 1977 and was thirty-one (31) years of age at the alleged onset of her disability. She was thirty-eight (38) years old on the date of the ALJ's decision (June 20, 2016) [TR 23, 251, 253]. Plaintiff was, at all times relevant to this case, a “younger individual age 18-49.” See 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(d). Plaintiff has a high school education [TR 46] and past relevant work as a waitress, a greenhouse worker, a sales representative, a bartender, and an insurance clerk [TR 22, 298, 316-21, 373, 376, 379].

         Plaintiff's claims were initially denied [TR 151-57] and upon reconsideration [TR 160-65]. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing [TR 166-69], which was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 12, 2016 [TR 40-82]. At hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing.

         On June 20, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, denying Plaintiff benefits [TR 7-31]. Applying the sequential, five-step analysis, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 30, 2009, the alleged disability onset date [TR 12]. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion surgery; spondyoarthritis, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome; degenerative disc disease of the cervical and thoracic spine; depression; and anxiety [TR 12-13]. At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments, singly or in combination, did not satisfy the requirements for a presumptive finding of disability under the Act [TR 13-14]. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “less than the full range of light work” [TR 14-22]. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday [TR 14]. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; limited to occasional balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs; could not be exposed to work hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery; limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out short, simple instructions; and interact appropriately with co-workers and the general public on an occasional basis [TR 14-15]. Continuing the step four analysis, the ALJ then determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work [TR 22]. At step-five, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform [TR 22-23]. Thus, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled from September 30, 2009 until the date of the ALJ's decision [TR 23].

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council [TR 5-7]. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on August 30, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final administrative decision [TR 1-4].[1]

         On October 31, 2016, Plaintiff filed her Complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), appealing the final decision [Dkt. 1]. On February 10, 2017, the Administrative Record was received from the Social Security Administration [Dkt. 10]. Plaintiff filed her Brief on April 4, 2017 [Dkt. 19], and the Commissioner filed her Brief in Support of the Commissioner's Decision on June 5, 2017 [Dkt. 24]. Plaintiff filed her reply brief on June 15, 2017 [Dkt. 25].


         The legal standard for determining disability under Titles II and XVI of the Act is whether the claimant is unable to perform substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months because of a medically determinable impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “Substantial gainful activity” is determined by a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         Sequential Evaluation Process

         Pursuant to the statutory provisions governing disability determinations, the Commissioner has promulgated regulations that establish a five-step process to determine whether a claimant suffers from a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, a claimant who is engaged in substantial gainful employment at the time of his disability claim is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant is not disabled if his alleged impairment is not severe, without consideration of his residual functional capacity, age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if the alleged impairment is severe, the claimant is considered disabled if his impairment corresponds to a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, a claimant with a severe impairment that does not correspond to a listed impairment is not considered to be disabled if he is capable of performing his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Finally, a claimant who cannot return to his past work is not disabled if he has the residual functional capacity to engage in work available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Under the first four steps of the analysis, the burden lies with the claimant to prove disability and at the last step the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). If at any step the Commissioner finds that the claimant is or is not disabled, the inquiry terminates. Id.

         Substantial Evidence

         In an appeal under § 405(g), judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in evaluating the evidence. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985); Jones v. Heckler, 702 F.2d 616, 620 (5th Cir. 1983). This Court cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 ...

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