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Givens v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Fort Worth Division

March 30, 2018

CHRISTY GIVENS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE, NOTICE, AND ORDER

          HAL R. RAY, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Christy Givens (“Givens”) filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the denial by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) of her application for disability insurance benefits and Supplement Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). ECF No. 1. After considering the pleadings, briefs, and the administrative record, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that Senior United States District Judge Terry R. Means AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Givens filed applications for disability insurance benefits and Supplement Security Income on January 14, 2014. Transcript (“Tr.”) 12. Givens alleged limiting conditions of back surgery, chronic back pain, migraines, perforated ulcer, degenerative heart valve, neuropathy, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, depression, and arthritis. Tr. 306. The Commissioner denied her benefits initially on June 12, 2014, and upon reconsideration on October 21, 2014. Tr. 12, 305-330. Givens requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held before Judge Carol K. Bowen in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 22, 2015. Tr. 12, 39. Attorney Carol Squires represented Givens at the hearing. Id. Vocational Expert (“VE”) Todd Harden testified at the hearing. Id. The ALJ issued her decision on August 25, 2015, finding that Givens was not entitled to disability benefits. Tr. 33.

         In her decision, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis. At step one, she found that Givens had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 28, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 14, Finding 2. At step two, the ALJ found that Givens had the severe impairments of chronic back pain, lumbar degenerative disc disease, congenital thoracic kyphosis, cervical bone spurs, left knee patella fracture status post surgical repair, left foot pain, major depressive disorder, and hypertension. Tr. 14, Finding 3. At step three, the ALJ found that Givens's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404(P)(1). Tr. 15, Finding 4. The ALJ therefore determined that Givens had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except for no operation of foot controls; no climbing, including ropes, ladders, or stairs; no kneeling, crouching, or crawling; occasional balancing and stooping; can sustain concentration and attention sufficient to understand, remember, and carry out detailed tasks, but not complex tasks, in a routine work setting. Tr. 17, Finding 5.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Givens was capable of performing her past relevant work as a waitress, an appointment clerk, and a cashier II, as this work does not require the performance of any work-related activities that would be precluded by Givens's RFC. Tr. 32, Finding 6. The ALJ based this conclusion on the testimony of the VE, who testified that a hypothetical individual with Givens's RFC would be able to perform her past relevant work. Id. Because the ALJ determined that Givens could perform her past relevant work at step four, she did not continue to step five. The ALJ found that Givens was not under a disability at any time from November 28, 2013, through the date of her decision on August 25, 2015. Tr. 33, Finding 7.

         The Appeals Council denied Givens's request for review on December 23, 2016. Tr. 1-8. Therefore the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision and is properly before the Court for review. See Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 336 (5th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he Commissioner's final decision includes the Appeals Council's denial of a request for review.”).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Givens was born on February 23, 1959. Tr. 277. The highest grade of schooling she completed was twelfth grade. Tr. 44. Her past work included work as a cashier, an assistant manager, and a temporary worker. Tr. 45-48, 268-76.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 404 et seq. of the SSA controls the disability insurance program as well as numerous regulatory provisions concerning disability insurance. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. The SSA defines a disability as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); McQueen v. Apfel, 168 F.3d 152, 154 (5th Cir. 1999).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to disability benefits, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). For step one, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity to gain disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial gainful activity” means work activity involving the use of significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 n.2 (5th Cir. 2002). For step two, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); see also Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1100-03 (5th Cir. 1985). For step three, disability exists if the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments (“Listing”) found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Before proceeding to step four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's RFC-“the most the claimant can still do despite [her] physical and mental limitations.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). For step four, if the claimant's medical status alone does not constitute a disability, the impairment must prevent the claimant from returning to his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). For step five, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any work, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197-98 (5th Cir. 1999). “The claimant bears the burden of showing that 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 v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 448 (5th Cir. 2007). “If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant must then prove he in fact cannot perform the alternate work.” Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 131, 135 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Crowley, 197 F.3d at 198.)

         The Court's decision is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the decision. Audler, 501 F.3d at 447; Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a responsible mind might accept to support a conclusion. It is more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance. A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision.” Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000)). The Court may neither reweigh the evidence in the record nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's, but it will carefully scrutinize the record to determine if evidence is present. Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. ...


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