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Phyllis R. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

March 8, 2019

PHYLLIS R. Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff filed a civil action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final adverse decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. The district court referred the case to the United States magistrate judge for pretrial management under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and a standing order of reference. For the reasons explained below, the district court should AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to a variety of ailments, including osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease, Morton's neuroma, osteoporosis, colitis, chronic constipation, anxiety, memory problems, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Administrative Record (“A.R.”) 25-26, 223 (ECF No. 7-1). After her application for disability insurance benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Id. 37. That hearing took place on March 7, 2017, and resulted in a decision denying disability benefits. Id. 23-33. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 59 years old. See Id. 75. She has more than a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Id. 31. Plaintiff has past work experience as a chiropractor. Id. 87.

         At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, [1] the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from March 1, 2011, her alleged onset date, through December 31, 2012, her date last insured. Id. 25. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease of the knees, and anxiety were severe impairments, but that she did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled the severity of any impairment listed in the social security regulations. Id. 25-27. The ALJ further found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for a limited range of medium work. Id. 27. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past work. Id. 31. At step five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work as a hospital cleaner, a linen room attendant, and a dining room attendant- jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. 32.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. Id. 15-16. The Council affirmed. Id. 4-7. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court in which she argues the ALJ's decision results from an error of law and is not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Compl. 2, ¶ 8 (ECF No. 1).

         Legal Standards

         Judicial review in social security appeals “‘is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard.'” Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (quoting Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005)); see also Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995) (citing Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994)). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (“Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance.'”) (quoting Perez, 415 F.3d at 461). The Commissioner, and not the courts, resolves conflicts in the evidence; thereafter, the Court may not “reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo.” Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995) (per curiam) (citing Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985)); Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). Accordingly, the Court may not substitute its own judgment for the Commissioner's, and it may affirm only on the grounds the Commissioner stated to support her decision. Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (citing Cole v. Barnhart, 288 F.3d 149, 151 (5th Cir. 2002) (per curiam)).


         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision that she was not disabled during the alleged period of disability as arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial evidence. “When determining the propriety of a decision of ‘not disabled,' [the] court's function is to ascertain whether the record considered as a whole contains substantial evidence that supports the final decision of the Commissioner, as trier of fact.” Shaw v. Astrue, 2010 WL 5101404, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 8, 2010) (Fitzwater, C.J.). The Court considers the following elements to determine if there is substantial evidence of disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) age, education, and work history. Martinez, 64 F.3d at 174 (citing Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 126 (5th Cir. 1991)). “The ALJ has a duty to develop the facts fully and fairly relating to an applicant's claim for disability benefits.” Ripley, 67 F.3d at 557 (citing Pierre v. Sullivan, 884 F.2d 799, 802 (5th Cir. 1989); Kane v. Heckler, 731 F.2d 1216, 1219 (5th Cir. 1984)). “If the ALJ does not satisfy [this] duty, [the] decision is not substantially justified.” Id. (citing Kane, 731 F.2d at 1219). Reversal of the ALJ's decision is appropriate, however, “only if the applicant shows that [she] was prejudiced.” Id. (citing Kane, 731 F.2d at 1220). A procedurally imperfect administrative ruling does not warrant reversal unless a party's substantive rights have been prejudiced. Smith v. Chater, 962 F.Supp. 980, 984 (N.D. Tex. Apr. 15, 1997) (Fitzwater, J.).

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ should have found she was disabled during the relevant period due to problems with her knees and feet, osteoporosis, degenerative joint disease, colitis, chronic constipation, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Plaintiff claims that her symptoms and limitations from these alleged impairments prevent her from walking more than 120 feet without pain, from sitting, standing, or laying down for an extended period, or from leaving home and require her to remain close to a bathroom. However, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period and could perform medium work, which includes the ability to sit, stand, and/or walk for six hours in an 8-hour day, to lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, and to perform detailed, but not complex, tasks. A.R. 27.

         Plaintiff argues, without elaboration, that the ALJ did not consider the totality of her alleged conditions. But, the ALJ's thorough and well-reasoned, written decision establishes the opposite. A.R. 27-31. The ALJ discussed in detail all of Plaintiff's alleged impairments, and the combined effect of those alleged impairments, on her ability to do work-related activities. Id. 28. The Court has reviewed the objective medical evidence and opinion evidence of record, as well as Plaintiff's own statements regarding her symptoms and limitations, and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment and disability determination.

         Specifically, the objective medical evidence shows that Plaintiff received treatment for knee problems prior to her alleged onset date and during the alleged period of disability, including injections for pain and swelling, and that such treatment helped her symptoms. Further, physical examinations of her knee during the alleged period of disability showed she had good extension, range of motion, and stability. A.R. 631-632, 640-650.

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that pain and other symptoms resulting from colitis, chronic constipation, and chronic fatigue syndrome limited her ability to work. A.R. 84-85, 90, 92-94. However, the ALJ declined to find that any of these conditions constituted a medically determinable impairment ...

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