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McHugh v. Berryhill

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

June 13, 2019

DAWN M. MCHUGH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Dawn M. McHugh (“McHugh”) 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 disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). (ECF No. 1). Pursuant to the consent of the parties and the order of reassignment dated December 17, 2018, the case has been transferred to the undersigned for the conduct of all further proceedings and the entry of judgment. (ECF No. 14). After considering the pleadings, briefs, and the administrative record, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         McHugh filed an application for DIB on July 27, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of July 13, 2011. (Transcript (“Tr.”) 51, 68, 133). The Commissioner initially denied the application for benefits on October 22, 2015, (Tr. 61), and denied upon reconsideration on January 12, 2016 (Tr. 73). McHugh requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), (Tr. 85-86), and a hearing was held before an ALJ in Dallas, Texas on March 6, 2017 (Tr. 29-50). An attorney represented McHugh at the hearing, and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. (Id.). During the hearing, McHugh amended her alleged disability onset date to June 21, 2013. (Tr. 33). The ALJ issued a decision on August 29, 2017, finding McHugh not disabled from June 21, 2013 through December 31, 2015, the last date insured. (Tr. 23).

         In the decision, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that McHugh had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 21, 2013, the alleged disability onset date, through December 31, 2015, the date last insured. (Tr. 17, Finding 2). At step two, the ALJ found that McHugh had the severe impairments of erythromelalgia (“EM”) and acute gastritis. (Tr. 17, Finding 3). EM is a condition characterized by episodes of pain, redness and swelling in various parts of the body, particularly the hands and feet. Genetics Home Reference: YourGuidetoUnderstandingGeneticConditions, Nat'l Insts. of Health (last visited June 4, 2019). At step three, the ALJ found that McHugh'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, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 17-18, Finding 4). The ALJ, therefore, determined that McHugh had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “at least light work . . . . The claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit, stand[, ] and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday.” (Tr. 18, Finding 5). At step four, with this RFC, the ALJ found that McHugh was capable of performing past relevant work as a customer service representative. (Tr. 22, Finding 6). Thus, the ALJ ruled McHugh had not been disabled from July 21, 2013 through December 31, 2015. (Tr. 23).

         The Appeals Council denied McHugh's request for review on July 10, 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 McHugh's pleadings, testimony at the administrative hearing, and the administrative record, McHugh was 50 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 53 years, 11 months old at the time of the administrative hearing. (Tr. 29, 33). She completed a high-school education. (Tr. 180). Her employment history included work as a customer service representative. (Tr. 33, 254). McHugh asserts that her physical impairments render her disabled under the SSA. (Tr. 133-34).


         Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 404 et seq., of the SSA governs the disability insurance program in addition to numerous regulations concerning disability insurance. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. The SSA defines a disability as a “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” that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 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 sequential five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity. 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. Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 n.2 (5th Cir. 2002); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. Second, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); see Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1100- 03 (5th Cir. 1985). Third, disability exists 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). Fourth, if the claimant's medical status alone does not constitute a disability, the impairment or impairments must prevent the claimant from returning to her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any work, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 197, 197-98 (5th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). “The claimant bears the burden of showing that [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). Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must assess a claimant's RFC-“the most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1).

         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. 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 and 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. 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. Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000); Hollis, 837 F.2d at 1383. “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 Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         McHugh raises one issue on appeal with several sub issues. She claims that the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 17). Specifically, McHugh alleges that the ALJ failed to account for her disabling pain and fatigue in establishing her RFC limitations. (Id. at 8-9). The Commissioner contends that the ALJ properly considered the objective ...

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