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Reece v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

July 24, 2019

Earl Reece, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Christina A. Bryan United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Earl Reece filed this case under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act for review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his request for supplemental security income benefits under the Act. The Commissioner and Reece moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. 13, 14, 16, 17). The Commissioner responded (Dkt. 20), and in accordance with the court's June 20, 2019 Order (Dkt. 21), both parties filed supplemental briefing. (Dkts. 22, 23). After considering the pleadings, the record, and the applicable law, the court GRANTS Reece's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS this case for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum and Order.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         1. Factual and Administrative History

         Reece filed a claim for supplemental security income benefits on April 21, 2015 alleging a disability onset date of March 10, 2015 due to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, a broken hip, gout, hypertension, short term memory issues, and depression. (Dkt. 9-4 at 2). Following the denial of his application and subsequent request for reconsideration, Reece requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). At the hearing, which took place on June 16, 2017, Reece amended his alleged onset date to April 21, 2015. (Dkt. 9-3 at 22, 37; Dkt. 9-5 at 70). The ALJ issued a decision on August 25, 2017, finding that Reece was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. 9-3 at 22-28). The Appeals Council denied review on May 15, 2018 (Dkt. 9-3 at 2-6), and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         2. Standard for District Court Review of the Commissioner's Decision

         Section 405(g) of the Act governs the standard of review in social security disability cases. Waters v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 716, 718 (5th Cir. 2002). Federal court review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny Social Security benefits is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard; and (2) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014); Stockman v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 692, 693 (5th Cir. 1999).

         With respect to all decisions other than conclusions of law, [2] “[i]f the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive.” Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence has also been defined as “more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance.” Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000)). When reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court does not reweigh the evidence, try the questions de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Masterson, 309 F.3d at 272. Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, not the courts. Id. The courts strive for judicial review that is “deferential without being so obsequious as to be meaningless.” Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999) (quoting Taylor v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 1294, 1298 (5th Cir. 1956)).

         The court weighs four types of evidence in the record when determining whether there is substantial evidence of 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. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 126 (5th Cir. 1991); Hamilton-Provost v. Colvin, 605 Fed.Appx. 233, 236 (5th Cir. 2015).

         3. Disability Determination Standards

         The ALJ must follow a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Water, 276. F.3d at 718. The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A finding at any point in the five-step sequence that the claimant is disabled, or is not disabled, ends the analysis. Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987).

         In the first step, the ALJ decides whether the claimant is currently working or “engaged in substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). Work is “substantial” if it involves doing significant physical or mental activities, and “gainful” if it is the kind of work usually done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972; Copeland, 771 F.3d at 924.

         In the second step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Under applicable regulations, an impairment is severe if it “significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.922(a). Under Fifth Circuit binding precedent, “[a]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality [having] such minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience.” Loza v. Apfel, 219 F.3d 378, 391 (5th Cir. 2000) (emphasis added) (quoting Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir. 1985)). “Re-stated, an impairment is severe if it is anything more than a ‘slight abnormality' that ‘would not be expected to interfere' with a claimant's ability to work.” Salmond v. Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018) (citing Loza, 219 F.3d at 391). This second step requires the claimant to make a de minimis showing. Salmond, 892 F.3d at 817.

         If the claimant is found to have a severe impairment, the ALJ proceeds to the third step of the sequential analysis: whether the severe impairment meets or medically equals one of the listings in the regulation known as Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the impairment meets one of the listings in Appendix 1, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If ...

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