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Odonohoe v. Saul

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

August 9, 2019

Michelle Lisa Odonohoe, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Michelle Lisa Odonohoe[1] filed this case under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), for review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her request for social security disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits. Odonohoe and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment (Dkts. 6, 9). After considering the pleadings, the record, and the applicable law, the court recommends that the district court GRANT the Commissioner's motion, DENY Odonohoe's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.[2]

         I. Background

         1. Factual and Administrative History

         In January 2016, Odonohoe filed applications for social security disability and supplemental security income benefits claiming May 16, 2015 as the onset date of disability. Odonohoe claims that she has been unable to work since May 16, 2015 due to depression, arthritis, morbid obesity and vision problems. Dkt. 9 at 6-7; Tr. at 16, 240, 242.[3] Odonohoe was 52 years old at the time of her alleged onset date and turned 55 on November 2, 2017.

         Odonohoe's benefit applications were denied by the agency on initial review and reconsideration. After a hearing at which Odonohoe and a vocational expert testified, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding Odonohoe disabled as of November 2, 2017 (her 55th birthday), but not disabled prior to that date. Tr. at 38-90. The Appeals Council denied review on March 16, 2018, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         The ALJ's partial disability finding hinged on two factors: by November 2017 Odonohoe's multiple sclerosis had progressed, resulting in a change in her residual functional capacity from light work to sedentary work, with additional limitations; and, according to the Grid Rules, the change in her residual functional capacity resulted in a disability finding when Odonohoe reached age 55.

         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).

         "If 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)). 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 v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000)). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, not the courts. Id.

         3. Disability Determination Standards

         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). 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. 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).

         At 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). At the second step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h), 416.920(a)(4)(h). Under Fifth Circuit precedent, "[a]n impairment can be considered...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...." 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)); Salmond v. Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018) ("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."). The second step requires the claimant to make a de minimis showing. Salmond, 892 F.3d at 817.

         At step three the ALJ determines whether the severe impairment meets or 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. If the claimant's symptoms do not meet a 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). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). "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). 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). Based on the RFC, the ALJ determines at step four whether the claimant can perform her past work. The claimant bears the burden to prove disability at steps one through four, meaning the claimant must prove she is not currently working and is no longer capable of performing her past relevant work. Newton, 209 F.3d at 453 (citing 42. U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).

         At step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the "claimant is capable of engaging in some type of alternative work that exists in the national economy." Id. Thus, the record must contain evidence demonstrating that other work exists in significant No. in the national economy, and that the claimant can do that work given her ...

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