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Baker v. Berryhill

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

July 3, 2019

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



         The United States Magistrate Judge made findings, conclusions, and a recommendation in this case. See Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendation (“FCR”), April 11, 2019, ECF No. 18. Plaintiff Germaine Antonio Baker filed objections. See Pl.'s Obj. FCR, ECF No. 19. The Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision. The Court has conducted a de novo review of those portions of the proposed findings and recommendation to which the objections were made. The Court finds that the findings and conclusions of the Magistrate Judge are correct. Therefore, the FCR in this case (ECF No. 18) should be and is hereby ACCEPTED and Plaintiff's objections are OVERRULED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case involves the denial of a claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleges that his disability began on October 15, 2012. SSA Admin. R., ALJ Hr'g Decision, App. 12, ECF No. 13-1 [hereinafter, “ALJ Decision”]. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on October 6, 2014. Id. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denied his claim on January 9, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on April 8, 2015. Id. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) J. Michael Brounoff conducted a hearing on December 19, 2016, and issued a decision on September 15, 2017, finding Plaintiff was not disabled. FCR 1, ECF No. 18. The ALJ applied the five-step analysis for determining disability under 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. ALJ Decision, App. 13, ECF No.13-1. After evaluating medical opinions and Plaintiff's impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to work in a variety of positions nationwide. See id. at 17, 23.


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to whether the Commissioner's position is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied proper legal standards when evaluating the evidence. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994); 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(C)(3). Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and as being such relevant and sufficient evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). When applying the substantial evidence standard, the reviewing court does not re-weigh the evidence, retry the issues, or substitute its own judgment, but rather, scrutinizes the record to determine whether substantial evidence is present. Greenspan, 38 F.3d at 236. A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if there is a conspicuous absence of credible evidentiary choices or contrary medical findings to support the Commissioner's decision. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988). The Commissioner, not the court, has the duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts in the evidence, and make credibility choices. Carrier v. Sullivan, 944 F.2d 243, 247 (5th Cir. 1991).

         The Social Security Administration uses a five-step process to determine whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The steps are followed in order, and if at any step the Commissioner determines that the claimant is disabled or not disabled, the evaluation does not go on to the next step. Id. The five steps consider: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the medical severity of the claimant's impairments; (3) whether the claimant's medical impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria listed in the Listing of Impairments; (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity and past relevant work; and (5) whether the combination of the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience allow for adjustments to be made to permit the claimant to work. See id. If the impairment is severe but does not meet or equal a listed mental impairment, then the Commissioner must conduct a residual functional capacity assessment. Id. § 404.1520a(d)(3).


         Challenging the Commissioner's denial of his disability claims, Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Obj. FCR 1-2, ECF No. 19. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to incorporate functional limitations stemming from the impairments which the ALJ recognized to be severe and to give due weight to medical opinion evidence, resulting in a flawed RFC assessment. Id. Therefore, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination at step five, that work exists in significant numbers that Plaintiff can perform, is not supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         The Magistrate Judge recommended that the alleged error was harmless. However, Plaintiff objects, arguing that the ALJ's failure to evaluate Plaintiff's impairments pursuant to the mandated psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) cannot be harmless error. Id. at 2.

         A. Functional Limitations

         RFC is defined as “the most [one] can still do despite [his/her] limitations that affect what [he/she] can do in a work setting.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). When establishing a plaintiff's RFC, “an ALJ need not explain in his or her written determination all evidence contained in the record.” Ramirez v. Colvin, No. 2:12-CV-262, 2014 WL 1293888, at *10 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 28, 2014) (emphasis added). Accordingly, when reviewing an ALJ's decision a court must determine whether the ALJ supported his determination with substantial evidence, and, if the ALJ failed to do so, determine whether the error was harmless. Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 448-49 (5th Cir. 2007). Additionally, the Fifth Circuit has held that “procedural defects in the agency process are reversible error when the substantial rights of a party have been affected.” McGehee v. Chater, No. 95-10499, 1996 WL 197435, at *3 (5th Cir. March 21, 1996). Therefore, if the ALJ's decision is adequately supported by the record, and reflects due consideration of Plaintiff's condition, remand is unnecessary to correct the procedural impediment. Id.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to incorporate the functional limitations of his somatoform or personality disorder into the RFC by failing to properly analyze them using the mandated PRT. Id. at 2. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not address the degree of functional limitations in the four “paragraph B” criteria. Id. Plaintiff claims that having done so, the ALJ's analysis would have resulted in a change in Plaintiff's RFC and “may have resulted in a totally different outcome.” Id. at 4.

         Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the error can be dismissed as harmless. Id. at 3. Plaintiff contends that it is “sheer speculation to assume that the [RFC] would not have changed had the ALJ considered the effects of Plaintiff's ...

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