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Rhonda T. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 29, 2019

RHONDA T., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          DAVID L. HORAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Rhonda T. seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the hearing decision should be reversed.

         Background

         Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled as a result of throat cancer, scoliosis, anemia, foot pain, and back and leg problems. After her application for disability insurance benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing was held on January 19, 2017. See Dkt. No. 9-1 at 30-55. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 61 years old. She has a high school equivalency diploma, and has past work experience as an assistant apartment complex manager and warehouse file clerk. Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2014.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to disability benefits. See Id. at 16-25. Although the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from a history of malignant neoplasm of the tongue and anxiety disorder, the ALJ concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work as a file clerk and assistant apartment complex manager.

         Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed.

         Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court. Plaintiff challenges the hearing decision on four grounds: (1) the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a severe mental impairment but failed to include mental limitations in the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding; (2) the ALJ gave “significant” or “great” weight to the opinions of three non-treating psychologists but failed to adopt or reject and explain her reasons for rejecting specific mental limitations described by these three sources; (3) the ALJ ignored Plaintiff's back and leg impairments at steps two and three of the sequential process; and (4) the ALJ was not properly appointed under the Constitution's Appointment Clause at the time of the hearing and, as a result, did not have legal authority to preside over the case or issue an unfavorable decision.

         The undersigned concludes that the hearing decision should be reversed and this case remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further proceedings consistent with these findings and conclusions.

         Legal Standards

         Judicial review in social security cases is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether Commissioner applied the proper legal standards to evaluate the evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014); Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); accord Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923. The Commissioner, rather than the courts, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, including weighing conflicting testimony and determining witnesses' credibility, and the Court does not try the issues de novo. See Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995); Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 237 (5th Cir. 1994). This Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's but must scrutinize the entire record to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports the hearing decision. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988). The Court “may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated for [the] decision.” Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923.

         “In order to qualify for disability insurance benefits or [supplemental security income], a claimant must suffer from a disability.” Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A disabled worker is entitled to monthly social security benefits if certain conditions are met. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act defines “disability” as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or last for a continued period of 12 months. See Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985).

         “In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner conducts a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether (1) the claimant is presently working; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the social security regulations; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) the impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other substantial gainful activity.” Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 447-48 (5th Cir. 2007).

         The claimant bears the initial burden of establishing a disability through the first four steps of the analysis; on the fifth, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there is other substantial work in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Audler, 501 F.3d at 448. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. See Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987).

         In reviewing the propriety of a decision that a claimant is not disabled, the Court's function is to ascertain whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's final decision. The Court weighs four elements to determine whether there is substantial evidence of disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) subjective ...


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