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Rollins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Wichita Falls Division

May 2, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Lonnie R. Rollins (“Rollins”) 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 his applications for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). ECF No. 1. After considering the pleadings, briefs, and the administrative record, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this action for further proceedings.


         Rollins filed his applications for disability benefits on July 30, 2014. Tr. 15. He alleged a disability onset date of July 25, 2014. Id. Rollins alleged limiting conditions of hypertension, COPD, hepatitis C, depression, chest pain, stroke, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and insomnia. Tr. 280. The Commissioner initially denied him benefits on November 24, 2014. Tr. 129-30. The Commissioner denied him benefits upon reconsideration on April 21, 2015. Tr. 145-46. Rollins requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held before ALJ Angelita Hamilton on April 27, 2016. Tr. 15. Rollins appeared in Wichita Falls, Texas, and the ALJ presided over the hearing from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Id. A non-attorney representative, Jeffrey L. Owen, represented Rollins at the hearing. Id. Vocational Expert (“VE”) David D. Couch testified at the hearing. Id. The ALJ issued her decision on May 26, 2016, finding that Rollins was not entitled to disability benefits. Tr. 30-31.

         In her decision, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis. At step one, she found that Rollins had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 25, 2014, the amended alleged disability onset date. Tr. 17, Finding 2. At step two, the ALJ found that Rollins had the severe impairments of COPD, diabetes, affective disorder, and substance addiction disorder. Tr. 17, Finding 3. At step three, the ALJ found that Rollins'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. 24, Finding 4. The ALJ therefore determined that Rollins had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that he should be limited to occasional exposure to environmental irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gases; and his work must be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. Tr. 25, Finding 5.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Rollins was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 29, Finding 6. At step five, the ALJ found that there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Rollins could perform. Tr. 29, Finding 10. In particular, the ALJ noted the jobs of mail sorter, collator operator, and hand packer, based on the testimony of the VE. Tr. 30. The ALJ found that Rollins was not under a disability at any time from July 25, 2014, through the date of her decision on May 26, 2016. Tr. 30-31, Finding 11.

         The Appeals Council denied Rollins's request for review on July 24, 2017. Tr. 1-6. 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.”).


         Rollins was born on December 2, 1963, and he was fifty years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 42. The highest grade of schooling he completed was the seventh grade. Tr. 78. The VE testified that Rollins had past work as a derrick worker. Tr. 87.


         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 his 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 [he] 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. 1988); Harris, 209 F.3d at 417. “Conflicts in the evidence are for the [Commissioner] and not the courts to resolve.” Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999)).

         IV. ...

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