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Caldwell v. Berryhill

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

August 13, 2019

David Layne Caldwell, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.


          Peter Bray, Judge

         Plaintiff David L. Caldwell appeals the Social Security Administration Commissioner's final decision denying his application for social security benefits. (D.E. 1.) The parties consented to proceed before the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). (D.E. 10.) Pending before the court is Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 13) and Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. (D.E. 17.) Having considered the motions, filings, and applicable law, the court finds that the final decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.

         1. Procedural Posture

         Caldwell applied for disability insurance benefits on July 2, 2014. (Tr. 195.) Caldwell claimed he was disabled since January 8, 2013, due to hepatitis C, bulging discs in his lower back, pain in his right elbow, pain in his left collar bone, and sinus problems, among others. (Tr. 220, 224.) In his application, Caldwell stated that he was born in 1962. He worked as a restaurant assistant manager, building engineer, mailroom clerk, marketing associate, and restaurant dishwasher. (Tr. 220, 225-26.) The Social Security Administration denied Caldwell's application on September 18, 2014. (Tr. 143-44.) Caldwell appealed on September 24, 2014. (Tr. 149-50.) His application was denied upon reconsideration on October 24, 2014. (Tr. 153-56.) Caldwell requested a hearing.

         Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Richard A. Gilbert held a hearing on December 2, 2015, in Houston, Texas. (Tr. 44-72.) The ALJ issued a decision on January 27, 2016, finding Caldwell not disabled. (Tr. 7-28.) The Appeals Council denied Caldwell's request for review on March 22, 2017. (Tr. 1-5.) Caldwell filed this complaint in federal court to appeal the ALJ's decision. (D.E. 1.)

         2. Legal Standards A. Five-Step Process

         The Social Security Act provides disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the program and have a physical or mental disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423. It defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment. . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner uses a sequential, five-step approach to determine whether the claimant is disabled. The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but the Commissioner bears the burden on the fifth step. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 455 (5th Cir. 2000). A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review terminates the analysis. Johnson v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 748, 751 (5th Cir. 1988).

         At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is involved in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b) (2016). A person who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity is not disabled, regardless of the medical findings. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 125 (5th Cir. 1991).

         At step two, the ALJ determines whether any of the claimant's impairments is severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (2016). An impairment is 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." Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir. 1985). A person who does not have a severe impairment is not disabled. Wren, 925F.2d at 125.

         The ALJ next determines, at step three, if the claimant's severe impairments "meet[] or equal[] a listed impairment in appendix 1." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d) (2016); see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (2016) (the "Listings"). If all the criteria of a Listing are met, the claimant is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d) (2016).

         Before reaching the final two steps, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) "based on all the relevant medical and other evidence." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e) (2016). An RFC assessment "is a determination of the most the claimant can still do despite his physical and mental limitations and is based on all relevant evidence in the claimant's record." Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461-62 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)).

         At step four, the RFC is used to determine whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. Perez, 415 F.3d at 462. If the claimant can perform their past work, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f) (2016). If not, the ALJ proceeds to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1) (2016).

         At step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any other work by considering the claimant's RFC and other factors, including age, education, and past work experience. Perez, 415 F.3d at 462. If the claimant can perform other work available in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled.

         B. Substantial Evidence Standard of Review

          This court's "review of the ALJ's disability determination is 'highly deferential': [it] ask[s] only whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the correct legal standards were employed." Garcia v. Berryhill, 880 F.3d 700, 704 (5th Cir. 2018). "A decision is supported by substantial evidence if credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision." Salmond v. Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance." Id. The reviewing court is required to examine the record as a whole to determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Randall v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 105, 109 (5th Cir. 1992).

         3. Hearing and ...

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