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Frank v. Saul

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

July 31, 2019

Christopher Ryan Frank, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Christopher Frank 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 disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Act. The Commissioner and Frank moved for summary judgment (Dkt. 10, 11, 12) and the Commissioner responded to Frank's motion. (Dkt. 13). After considering the pleadings, the record, and the applicable law, the court GRANTS Frank's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS this case to the Commissioner.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         1. Factual and Administrative History

         Frank filed a claim for social security disability insurance benefits on October 23, 2015 alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2007 due to post traumatic stress disorder with major depression, chronic bilateral ankle pain, cervical strain, lumbar strain, migraines, chronic bilateral knee pain, and tinnitus. (Dkt. 3-4 at 2). Following the denial of his application and subsequent request for reconsideration, Frank requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). A hearing took place on March 13, 2017 and Frank amended his alleged onset date to May 1, 2014. (Dkt. 3-3 at 79). The ALJ issued a decision on April 26, 2017, finding that Frank was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. 3-3 at 56-69). The Appeals Council denied review on August 28, 2017 (Dkt. 3-3 at 2-7), and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See20 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); Frank 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 and must be affirmed.” 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).

         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; Waters, 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.” Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 618 (5th Cir. 1990) (citing 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. 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 v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 924 (5th Cir. 2014).

         In the second step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment. 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), 416.920(c). 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. Id.The second step requires the claimant to make a de minimis showing. See Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 293 n.5 (5th Cir. 1992); Salmond v. Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018).

         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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the impairment meets one of the listings in Appendix 1, the claimant is disabled. If the ALJ finds that the claimant's symptoms do not meet any listed impairment, the sequential analysis continues to the fourth step.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC). “The RFC is the individual's ability to do physical and mental tasks on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.” Giles v. Astrue, 433 Fed.Appx. 241, 245 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §404.1545). The ALJ must base the RFC determination on the record as a whole and must consider all of a claimant's impairments, including those that are not severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404. 1545(e); Giles, 433 Fed.Appx. at 245; see also Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1023-24 (5th Cir. 1990). Once the ALJ has ...

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