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Callie W. v. Berryhill

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

July 2, 2019

CALLIE W., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.



         Plaintiff filed this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) seeking judicial review of the unfavorable decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) regarding her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). (ECF No. 1 at 1; Tr. 12). After considering the pleadings, briefs, and administrative record, the undersigned recommends that United States District Judge Reed O'Connor AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB on October 27, 2015, alleging disability based on anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, history of breast cancer, and obesity. (ECF No. 16 at 2). The Commissioner initially denied her application on February 1, 2016 and again upon reconsideration on May 9, 2016. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 25). She attended the hearing before ALJ Daniel Curran on April 10, 2017 in Dallas, Texas and testified. (Id. at 12). Also present were her non-attorney representative, Sean Sullivan, and a vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.). On July 18, 2017, the ALJ rendered a decision finding that she was not disabled. (Id. at 12-25).

         Specifically, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis and established during step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2015. (Tr. 14). At step two, the ALJ determined that she had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, migraines, status post-malignant neoplasm of the breast, obesity, anxiety, and affective disorder. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ found that her impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404(p). (Id.). The ALJ concluded that she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). (Id. at 17-23). At step four, the ALJ determined that she was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Id. at 23). And at step five, the ALJ decided that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she could perform. (Id. at 24-25).

         The Appeals Council denied review on July 10, 2018. (Tr. 1-3). 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.”).


         According to her pleadings, testimony at the administrative hearing, and administrative record, Plaintiff was forty-seven years old on the alleged disability onset date of June 1, 2015, and forty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing. (ECF No. 16 at 3; Tr. 12). She completed a high school education, and her employment history includes work as an order puller, inspector, and warehouse coordinator. (ECF No. 16 at 3). She asserts that her physical and mental impairments render her disabled under the SSA.


         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 194, 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 four issues on appeal: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider all of her functional limitations in determining her RFC; (2) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence; (3) the ALJ's hypothetical question to the VE did not reasonably incorporate her physical limitations; and (4) the ALJ's failure to ...

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