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Meredith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Austin Division

July 8, 2019




         This is an appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying an application for disability benefits. Before the Court are the parties' briefs (Dkt. Nos. 15, 16, & 17), as well as the administrative record (Cited as “Tr.”).


         In August 2015, Plaintiff Robert Meredith III filed an application for disability insurance benefits, claiming disability beginning on January 31, 2014 due to neck problems. The claim was denied on December 21, 2015, and then again upon reconsideration on March 9, 2016. After the Plaintiff requested and was provided a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge issued a decision on June 14, 2017, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had severe impairments of cervical spine herniation status post laminectomy and fusion with left arm neuropathy, headaches (intermittent migraines), and chronic lumbar strain. However, the ALJ found that the impairments did not meet or equal an impairment found in the Appendix 1 Listing of Impairments. In addition, the ALJ noted that the Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with restrictions and the records did not support Plaintiff's subjective statements related to the limiting effects of his impairments. The ALJ, based on the RFC, then determined that the Plaintiff could not perform his past work as an auto mechanic, but, based on the guidance of the vocational expert, noted that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. As a result, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled for the relevant period and not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income. Meredith requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied by notice on February 23, 2018. Meredith has now exhausted his administrative remedies and seeks judicial review of the administrative proceedings under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine if a claimant is able to engage in “substantial gainful activity” (and therefore if he is disabled) the Social Security Commissioner uses a five-step analysis:

1. a claimant who is working, engaging in a substantial gainful activity, will not be found to be disabled no matter what the medical findings are;
2. a claimant will not be found to be disabled unless he has a “severe impairment”;
3. a claimant whose impairment meets or is equivalent to an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations will be considered disabled without the need to consider vocational factors;
4. a claimant who is capable of performing work that he has done in the past must be found “not disabled”; and
5. if the claimant is unable to perform his previous work as a result of his impairment, then factors such as his age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine whether he can do other work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 435 (5th Cir. 1994). A finding of disability or no disability at any step is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994). The claimant has the burden of proof for the first four steps; at step five, the burden initially shifts to the Commissioner to identify other work the applicant is capable of performing. Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 618 (5th Cir. 1990). Then, if the Commissioner “fulfills his burden of pointing out potential alternative employment, the burden . . . shifts back to the claimant to prove that he is unable to perform the alternate work.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision; and (2) whether the Commissioner correctly applied the relevant legal standards. Kinash v. Callahan, 129 F.3d 736, 738 (5th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance-in other words, “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995). The Court considers four elements of proof when determining whether there is substantial evidence of a disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history. Id. at 174. However, the reviewing court may not reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Greenspan, 38 F.3d at 236. The Court may only scrutinize the record to determine whether it contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). If the Court finds substantial evidence to support the decision, the Court must uphold the decision. Selders, 914 F.2d at 617 (“If the . . . findings are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive and must be affirmed.”); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A finding of no substantial evidence will only be made where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence. Abshire v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 638, 640 (5th Cir. 1988)

         III. THE ...

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