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Hill v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Tyler Division

July 3, 2019

TONYA KAYE HILL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN D. LOVE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On May 14, 2018 Tonya Kaye Hill (“Plaintiff”) initiated this civil action pursuant to the 42 U.S.C. § 205(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application for Social Security benefits. (Doc. No. 1.) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this case. (Doc. No. 13, at 1-2.) For the reasons stated below, the Court REVERSES and REMANDS this case to the Commissioner pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         On July 7, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for social security benefits, and on July 16, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income. See Transcript (“Tr.”) at 103-04, 220-29. The applications alleged a disability beginning October 1, 2014. Id. at 222, 224. The claim was initially denied on November 25, 2015, and upon reconsideration on March 10, 2016. Id. at 151-56, 160-63. Plaintiff sought review of the denial at an administrative hearing and had a video hearing on February 13, 2017. Id. at 35-63. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 11, 2017. Id. at 10-22. Plaintiff sought review, and on March 13, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 1-6. Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). Plaintiff has filed the instant action for review.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Title II provides for federal disability insurance benefits and Title XVI provides for supplemental security income for the disabled. Judicial review of the denial of disability benefits under section 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is limited to “determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the proper legal standards were used in evaluating the evidence.” Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 435 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990)); Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988) (citing Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)). Accordingly, the Court “may not reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [the Court's] judgment for the [Commissioner]'s, even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s decision.” Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435 (quoting Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988)); see Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993); Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992); Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985). Rather, conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide. Spellman, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)); Anthony, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992) (citing Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983)). A decision on the ultimate issue of whether a claimant is disabled, as defined in the Act, rests with the Commissioner. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 455-56 (5th Cir. 2000); SSR 96-5p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34471 (July 2, 1996).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance-that is, enough that a reasonable mind would judge it sufficient to support the decision.” Pena v. Astrue, 271 Fed.Appx. 382, 383 (5th Cir. 2003) (citing Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994)). Substantial evidence includes four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the plaintiff's age, education, and work history. Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1302 n.4 (5th Cir. 1987). If supported by substantial evidence, the decision of the Commissioner is conclusive and must be affirmed. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). However, the Court must do more than “rubber stamp” the ALJ's decision; the Court must “scrutinize the record and take into account whatever fairly detracts from the substantiality of evidence supporting the [Commissioner]'s findings.” Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985).

         A claimant for disability has the burden of proving a disability. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 125 (5th Cir. 1991). The Act defines “disability” as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormality which is demonstrable by acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner must utilize a five-step, sequential process. Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. A finding of “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step of the sequential process ends the inquiry. Id.; see Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435 (citing Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475). Under the five-step sequential analysis, the Commissioner must determine at Step One whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. At Step Two, the Commissioner must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments are severe. At Step Three, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix I. Prior to moving to Step Four, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), or the most that the claimant can do given his impairments, both severe and non-severe. Then, at Step Four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant's impairments are severe enough to prevent him from performing his past relevant work. Finally, at Step Five, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant can perform other work available in the local or national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)-(f), 416.920(b)-(f). An affirmative answer at Step One or a negative answer at Steps Two, Four, or Five results in a finding of “not disabled.” See Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. An affirmative answer at Step Three, or an affirmative answer at Steps Four and Five, creates a presumption of disability. Id. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps, but shifts to the Commissioner at Step Five if the claimant shows that he cannot perform his past relevant work. Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 632-33 (5th Cir. 1989) (per curiam).

         ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings in her May 11, 2017 decision:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: plantar fasciitis and bone spurs on the feet; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; hypertension; recurrent edema; obesity; anxiety disorder; and ...

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