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Maldonado v. Berryhill

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

May 2, 2018




         This case was referred to the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to the provisions of Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b). The Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendation of the United States Magistrate are as follows:



         Plaintiff Julie Arm Maldonado ("Maldonado") filed this action pursuant to section 405(g) and 1383(c) of Title 42 of the United States Code for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). In January 2013, Maldonado protectively applied for DIB and SSI, alleging her disability began on February 28, 2012. (Transcript ("Tr.") 120, 312-22.) After her application for DIB and SSI were denied both initially and on reconsideration, Maldonado requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 120, 153-202, 211-23.) The ALJ held a hearing on January 20, 2015, and he issued a decision on July 14, 2015, in which he found Maldonado was not disabled. (Tr. 120-29, 135-52.)


         Disability insurance is governed by Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 404 et seq., and SSI benefits are governed by Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., of the SSA. In addition, numerous regulatory provisions govern disability insurance and SSI benefits. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404 (disability insurance); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 416 (SSI)[1]. Although technically governed by different statutes and regulations, "[t]he law and regulations governing the determination of disability are the same for both disability insurance benefits and SSI." Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994).

         The SSA defines a disability as a medically determinable physical or mental impairment lasting at least twelve months that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382(a)(3)(A); 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 Court employs a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity. Substantial gainful activity is defined as work activity involving the use of significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.972. Second, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c); Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir, 1985). Third, disability will be found if the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). Fourth, if disability cannot be found on the basis of the claimant's medical status alone, the impairment or impairments must prevent the claimant from returning to her past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Fifth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any work, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience. Id. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 194, 197-98 (5th Cir. 1999). At steps one through four, the claimant has the burden of proof to show that she is disabled. Crowley, 197 F.3d at 198. If the claimant satisfies this responsibility, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the final step to show that there is other gainful employment the claimant is capable of performing in spite of her existing impairment. Id.

         A denial of disability benefits is reviewed only to determine whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995); Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1382 (5th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a responsible mind might accept to support a conclusion. Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001). It is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance. Id. A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision. Id. This 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 the evidence is present. Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000); Hollis, 837 F.2d at 1383.

         III. ISSUES

         In her brief, Maldonado presents the following issues:

1. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to properly weigh the medical opinion evidence;
2. Whether the ALJ's credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence; and
3. Whether the ALJ erred in relying on vocational expert ("VE") testimony elicited in response to an incomplete hypothetical question.

(Plaintiffs Brief ("Pl.'s Br.") at 1.)


         In his July 14, 2015 decision, the ALJ concluded that Maldonado was not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. (Tr. 128.) In making his determination, the ALJ proceeded to follow the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth above. (Tr. 122-28.) At Step One, the ALJ found that Maldonado did not engage in substantial gainful activity since February 28, 2012, the alleged onset date of Maldonado's disability. (Tr. 122.) Maldonado's earnings records reflect earnings below the substantial gainful activity ("SGA") level in both 2012 and 2013. (Tr. 122, 354.) At Step Two, the ALJ held that Maldonado had the following "severe" impairments: (1) hepatitis C; (2) back disorder; (3) affective mood disorder; (4) bipolar disorder; (5) dysthymic disorder; and (6) anxiety disorder. (Tr. 123.) At Step Three, the ALJ found that Maldonado did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or was medically equivalent to the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 123-24.) As to Maldonado's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ stated:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; to stand and walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except occasionally, climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; no use of foot controls; and occasional exposure to extreme temperatures, vibrations, moving mechanical parts, electrical shock, hazardous exposed places, radiation, and explosives, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation. From a general educational development (GED) standpoint, the claimant retains the reasoning, mathematics and language abilities to perform simple work with understanding and carrying out simple one- or two-step instructions, dealing with standardized situations with occasional or no variables in situations encountered on the job, performing basic arithmetic operations, and reading, writing, and speaking in simple sentences using normal work order. Furthermore, the claimant is limited to occasional contact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.

(Tr. 124 (footnote and emphasis omitted).) At Step Four, the ALJ stated that Maldonado was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 127.) Finally, at Step Five, in light of the testimony provided by the VE, the ALJ found that "[considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform." (Tr. 128 (citation omitted).) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Maldonado was not disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 28, 2012 through the date of his decision. (Tr. 129.)

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         1. Opinions of ...

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