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Kingfisher-Miller v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

July 19, 2019




         Plaintiff, Starlla D. Kingfisher-Miller, requests judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration with respect to her application for disability-based benefits. The undersigned finds that the administrative law judge's decision lacks reversible error, is supported by substantial evidence, and therefore affirms the decision denying benefits.

         Factual History and Testimony Before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)

         Kingfisher-Miller was fifty-one years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. She has completed some college courses, was employed as a truck driver for thirty-one years, and was previously employed as a flagger traffic controller. Kingfisher-Miller was employed for three days at a poultry processing plant in September of 2015 until she suffered a heart attack. She currently lives in an RV on her mother's property. She claims disability due to seizures, severe body pains, muscle spasms, and migraine headaches. She also suffers from anxiety, chest pain, arthritis, asthma, hypertension, obesity, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD. In addition, she has a hearing loss and experiences some dizziness and balance problems. Kingfisher-Miller receives food stamps and has seen a nurse practitioner through an indigent care program. Her mother helps her purchase medications. Kingfisher-Miller alleges that she suffers from lupus flare-ups two or three times each month. According to Kingfisher-Miller, when she experiences a flare-up, she is bedridden for days. The lupus causes her to have muscle spasms for which she was prescribed cyclobenzaprine. She developed seizures at the age of fourteen and currently experiences one per week while on medication. She was taking Lamotrigine for her seizures but is currently taking Gabapentin.

         Kingfisher-Miller has lost her hearing in her left ear and suffers from dizzy spells and balance problems. She also suffers from asthma and uses an inhaler. In addition, she testified that she suffers from depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

         Kingfisher-Miller is able to take care of her own personal hygiene and grooming. She is able to perform household chores and manages her own medications. She takes care of her pets and gets along well with some of her family members. She enjoys walking for exercise, but does not like to go shopping, primarily because of her dislike of being around large groups of people.

         On September 18, 2015, Kingfisher-Miller filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. She also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on September 21, 2015. In both applications, she alleged disability beginning June 24, 2015. These claims were denied initially on January 26, 2016, and upon reconsideration on April 25, 2016. Kingfisher-Miller thereafter requested an administrative hearing. She appeared with legal counsel and testified at a hearing held on December 9, 2016 in Nacogdoches, Texas before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gerald L. Meyer. In his decision dated January 6, 2017, the ALJ held that Kingfisher-Miller had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 24, 2015, through the date of his decision.

         The Administrative Decision

         The ALJ utilized the five-step sequential evaluation process, discussed supra, in deciding Kingfisher-Miller's disability claim. At steps one and two, the ALJ found that Kingfisher-Miller met the insured status requirement through December 31, 2015, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 24, 2015. At steps three and four, he found that Kingfisher-Miller had the following severe impairments: lupus erythematosus; chest pain; arthritis; seizure disorder; asthma; hypertension; obesity; and affective disorder, but concluded that these impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         Next, the ALJ determined that Kingfisher-Miller retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except she can only lift or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; she can sit, stand, or walk for six hours in an eight hour day; she can sit for six hours in an eight hour day; she can never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps or stairs; she can never crawl; she can occasionally balance, stoop, or crouch; she can never be exposed to extreme cold; she may never be exposed to dust, fumes, chemicals, gases, odors, or poor ventilation; she may never work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery; she can perform simple, one to three step procedures that are routine and repetitive, without frequent changes in duties; she can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; and she can have only occasional contact with the general public. In making this determination, the ALJ found that Kingfisher-Miller's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, but her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely credible for many reasons, including the lack of support in her medical records.

         The ALJ then determined that Kingfisher-Miller was unable to perform any past relevant work as a truckdriver and flagger. Based on testimony from the vocational expert, Kingfisher-Miller's residual functional capacity, her age, education, and work experience, the ALJ determined that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. The ALJ agreed with the vocational expert's testimony that Kingfisher-Miller could perform representative occupations including: house sitter, sewing machine operator, and/or rug cleaner. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Kingfisher-Miller was not disabled during the relevant period. Kingfisher-Miller requested review of the administrative decision; however, the Appeals Council declined review. Therefore, the ALJ's Meyer's decision serves as the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Judicial Review

         Review of Social Security disability cases “is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005) (citing Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994)); see generally 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (describing and elaborating on the standard for judicial review of decisions of the Commissioner of Social Security). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance.” Perez, 415 F.3d at 461 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). It refers to “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). In applying this standard, the court “may not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (internal citation omitted). The court may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated for his decision. Cole v. Barnhart, 288 F.3d 149, 151 (5th Cir. 2002) (per curiam).

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must suffer from a disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Act defines a disability as a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment lasting at least twelve months that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity.” Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 (5th Cir. 2002); see also 42 U.S.C. ยง 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner typically uses a sequential five-step process to determine whether a claimant is disabled within ...

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