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Saleeba v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

March 5, 2019

Andrew Saleeba, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          Peter Bray United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Andrew Saleeba appeals the Social Security Administration Commissioner's final decision denying his application for social security benefits. (D.E. 1.) This case was referred to the magistrate judge for findings and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). (D.E. 9.) Pending before the court is Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 7) and Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. (D.E. 12.) Having carefully considered the motions, filings, and applicable law, the court recommends that the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         1. Procedural Posture

         Saleeba applied for disability insurance benefits on March 6, 2014. (Tr. 221- 29.) Saleeba claimed he was disabled due to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression, with an alleged disability onset date of May 31, 2012. (Tr. 245.) The Social Security Administration denied Saleeba's application May 7, 2014, and Saleeba appealed. (Tr. 170-75.) His application was denied upon reconsideration on August 25, 2014. (Tr. 177-79.)

         Saleeba requested a hearing on October 20, 2014 (Tr. 186-87), and Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gary Suttles held a hearing on July 8, 2016. (Tr. 37.) On August 1, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Saleeba not disabled. (Tr. 32.) Saleeba filed the present complaint in federal court to appeal the ALJ's decision. (D.E. 1.)

         2. Legal Standards

         A. Five-Step Process

         The Social Security Act provides disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the program and have a physical or mental disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423. It defines disability as the "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 twelve months." See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner uses a sequential, five-step approach to determine whether the claimant is disabled. The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but the Commissioner bears the burden on the fifth step. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 455 (5th Cir. 2000). A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review terminates the analysis. Johnson v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 748, 751 (5th Cir. 1988).

         At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is involved in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). A person who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity is not disabled, regardless of the medical findings. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 125 (5th Cir. 1991).

         At step two, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant's impairment is severe, irrespective of age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). A person who does not have a "severe impairment" is not disabled. Wren, 925 F.2d at 125. An impairment is not severe "only if it is a slight abnormality having such minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience." Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir. 1985).

         Once the ALJ finds that the claimant has any severe impairment, the ALJ must determine, at step three, if the impairments "meet[] or equal[] a listed impairment in appendix 1." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the Listings). If the requirements of a Listing are met, the individual will be considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         For the impairments that do not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must proceed to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) "based on all the relevant medical and other evidence." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). An RFC assessment "is a determination of the most the claimant can still do despite his physical and mental limitations and is based on all relevant evidence in the claimant's record." Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 462 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)).

         The RFC is used to determine whether the claimant can perform past relevant work at step four. Id. If the claimant is capable of performing the work the claimant has done in the past, the claiman: is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the ALJ finds that the claimant's RFC precludes the claimant from performing past relevant work, the ALJ must proceed to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         At step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any other work by considering the claimant's FLFC and other factors, including age, education, and past work experience. Id.

         B. Substantial Evidence Standard of Review

         This court's "review of the ALJ's disability determination is 'highly deferential': [it] ask[s] only whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the correct legal standards were employed." Garcia v. Berryhill, 880 F.3d 700, 704 (5th Cir. 2018) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Substantial evidence exists if the record "yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ." Loza v. Apfel, 219 F.3d 378, 393 (5th Cir. 2000). The court "does not reweigh the evidence in the record, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's, even if the evidence weighs against the Commissioner's decision." Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000). "Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner and not the courts to resolve." Id. "A decision is supported by substantial evidence if credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision." Salmond v. Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018) (internal quotations omitted). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance." Id. (internal quotations omitted). The reviewing court is required to examine the record as a whole to determine whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision. Randall v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 105, 109 (5th Cir. 1992).

         3. ALJ's Decision and Administrative Records

         A. Hearing

         At Saleeba's hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Saleeba, his mother, and a vocational expert (VE). Saleeba testified that he had previously worked as a valet (Tr. 49), waiter (Tr. 49), and music tutor. (Tr. 43.) Saleeba testified that he had been treated for schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and ADHD since 2011, when he began experiencing hallucinations and delusional thoughts. (Tr. 45.)

         He testified about his history of drug use and rehabilitation. (Tr. 46.) Saleeba testified that he saw a therapist every six weeks. (Tr. 47.) He testified that, with his mother's assistance, he had taken medication for five years that helped him see clearly and prevented hallucinations or delusions. (Tr. 50). He testified about his history of hospitalization for mental health treatment. (Tr. 48.)

         Saleeba testified about his typical daily activities. (Tr. 54-56.) He testified that in the first half of 2015, he discontinued one of his medications, Resperidal, because it made him gain weight. (Tr. 66-68.) He testified about certain incidents reflected in his treatment records, such as drawing with a marker on his arms, getting minor burns on his forearm, thinking his family was occult, and experiencing a burning sensation in his genitals. (Tr. 68-72.)

         Saleeba's mother testified about instances of his son's delusional or erratic behavior, such as thinking that the FBI was coming to arrest him and his family. (Tr. 74-75.) She testified that his daily activities consisted mostly of taking his medication, eating, smoking cigarettes in the garage, and taking naps. (Tr. 79-80.)

         Based on the testimony and the SSA's consulting examiners' reports, the ALJ asked the VE what kind of work, if any, could be done given a residual functional capacity (RFC) with no exertional impairments and the capacity to "get along with others," "understand simple instructions," "concentrate and perform simple tasks," "respond and adapt to workplace changes and supervision," and work in an environment with "occasional" contact between the public and the employee. (Tr. 86-87.) The VE testified that such a person could find work as a small product assembler, office cleaner, or hand packager. (Tr. 87.)

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ issued his decision on August 1, 2016. At step one, the ALJ found that Saleeba had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 31, 2012. (Tr. 17.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Saleeba had severe impairments from bipolar disorder and depression. (Tr. 18.) The ALJ found that Saleeba's asthma, hypertension, obesity, and drug abuse were non-severe. (Tr. 22.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that none of Saleeba's impairments was medically equivalent to a Listing. (Tr. 22.) Before reaching steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Saleeba had no physical ...


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