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Pruett v. Berryhill

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

April 11, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Shania Nellie Pruett (“Pruett”) 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 supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). (ECF No. 1). After considering the pleadings, briefs, and administrative record, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that United States District Judge Reed O'Connor REVERSE the Commissioner's decision and REMAND this action for further proceedings.


         Pruett filed her application for SSI on December 30, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of November 8, 1996. (Transcript (“Tr.”) 77, 84-85, 94, 185-190). The Commissioner denied her application for benefits on February 26, 2015, (Tr. 77-83), and June 12, 2015, (Tr. 85-93), for insufficient evidence and denied her application upon reconsideration on June 16, 2015, (Tr. 108- 10). Pruett requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), (Tr. 114-16), and a hearing was held by videoconference before an ALJ in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on August 24, 2017 (Tr. 48-76). An attorney represented Pruett at the hearing. (Id.). Vocational Expert (“VE”) Clifton King testified at the hearing. (Id.). The ALJ issued a decision on October 26, 2017, finding that Pruett was not disabled under the SSA and, therefore, not entitled to SSI. (Tr. 28).

         In the decision, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Pruett had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the filing of her application for SSI. (Tr. 17, Finding 1). At step two, the ALJ found that Pruett had the severe impairments of intellectual disability and major depressive disorder with mixed bipolar and anxiety. (Tr. 17, Finding 2). At step three, the ALJ found that Pruett's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404(P)(1). (Tr. 17, Finding 3). The ALJ, therefore, determined that Pruett had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform:

a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The hypothetical individual would be able to understand, remember, comprehend, and carry out simple work related skills and tasks. The hypothetical individual can work with supervisors and coworkers on a superficial basis. The hypothetical individual cannot work with the public. The hypothetical individual can adapt to routine change in the working environment.

(Tr. 19, Finding 4). At step four, with this RFC, the ALJ found that Pruett had no past relevant work. (Tr. 26, Finding 5). At step five, after considering the VE's testimony and Pruett's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she could have performed. (Tr. 27, Finding 9). Thus, the ALJ ruled Pruett had not been disabled since December 30, 2014, the date the application was filed. (Tr. 27, Finding 10).

         The Appeals Council denied Pruett's request for review on June 12, 2018. (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.”).


         According to Pruett's pleadings, testimony at the administrative hearing, and the administrative record, she was 20 years old at the time of the administrative hearing. (Tr. 51). She completed the eleventh grade in a special education program. (Tr. 51, 255-261, 290). She has virtually no employment history. (Tr. 54-55, 290).


         Supplemental security income benefits are governed by Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., of the SSA. In addition, numerous regulatory provisions govern SSI benefits. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 416. 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 obtain 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 her 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 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 [she] 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. ANALYSIS

         Pruett raises three issues on appeal. She claims that the ALJ erred (1) in finding that her impairments did not meet or equal section 12.05B of the Listing, (ECF No. 12 at 2, 4-9); (2) by failing to properly consider Pruett's functional limitations in determining her RFC, (Id. at 3, 9- 12); and ...

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