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Donald M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 2, 2019

DONALD M., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          HAL R. RAY, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the unfavorable decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) regarding his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). (ECF Nos. 1, 14). After considering the pleadings, briefs, and the administrative record, the undersigned recommends that United States District Judge Reed O'Connor AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on July 16, 2015, alleging disability based on degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, and depression. (ECF No. 14 at 5-6; Tr. 19). The Commissioner initially denied his DIB application on November 19, 2015 and again upon reconsideration on April 11, 2016. (Tr. 17). He timely filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id.). Plaintiff attended the hearing on June 8, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas and testified. (Id.). Also present were his attorney and a vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.). On October 2, 2017, the ALJ rendered a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 17-28).

         Specifically, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis and established during step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 5, 2015. (Tr. 19). At step two, the ALJ determined that he had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and osteoarthritis of the left shoulder. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ found that his impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404(p). (Tr. 21). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). (Id.). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 26). And at step five, the ALJ decided that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Id. at 26-27).

         The Appeals Council denied review on April 23, 2018. (Tr. 1-7). Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision and is properly before the Court for review. Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 334 (5th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he Commissioner's ‘final decision' includes the Appeals Council's denial of [a claimant's] request for review.”).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         According to his pleadings, testimony at the administrative hearing, and the administrative record, Plaintiff was fifty-six years old on the alleged disability onset date of May 5, 2015 and fifty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing. (Tr. 17, 26). He completed high school and has an employment history that includes work as a police sergeant and truck driver. (ECF No. 14 at 4; Tr. 26). Plaintiff asserts that his physical and mental impairments render him disabled under the SSA.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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). 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 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 his 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(g). “The claimant bears the burden of showing that [he] 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 [his] limitations.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461-62 (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 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 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

         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (1) the ALJ failed to recognize and consider all of his vocationally significant impairments; (2) the ALJ improperly substituted his own medical judgment for the medical opinion evidence of record; and (3) the ALJ failed to carry his burden of establishing the existence of other work, in significant numbers, that Plaintiff can perform. (ECF No. 14 at 7-12).

         A. The ALJ Recognized and Considered all Vocationally Significant Impairments.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ did not apply the correct legal standard at step two of the sequential evaluation in determining whether he has a severe impairment. (ECF No. 14 at 7-8). Plaintiff argues that this legal error was prejudicial ...


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