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McFarland v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Fort Worth Division

August 20, 2019

DONALD DWAYNE MCFARLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          REED O'CONNOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Donald Dwayne McFarland (“Plaintiff”) filed this action seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), [1] who denied his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), the case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Hal R. Ray, Jr., for review and submission of proposed findings of fact and recommendation for disposition. On July 2, 2019, the United States Magistrate Judge filed his Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations (the “Report”), in which he recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision and dismiss Plaintiff's appeal. Report, ECF No. 17. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the Report. Objections, ECF No. 18. The Commissioner did not file a response to Plaintiff's objections.

         After an independent review of the pleadings, objections, file, record, applicable law, and Report, for the reasons explained below, the Court determines that the magistrate judge's findings and conclusions are correct and ACCEPTS them as those of the Court. Accordingly, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiff's objections, AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision, and DISMISSES this appeal with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Donald Dwayne McFarland (“Plaintiff”) alleges he is disabled due to a variety of ailments, including degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis, and depression. After his 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 June 8, 2017, and resulted in a decision denying disability benefits.

         The ALJ followed a five-step sequential process prescribed in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and concluded as follows: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 5, 2015, the alleged onset date; (2) he has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, but his mental health impairment of depression is not severe; (3) he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404(p); (4) he has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a); and (5) he is incapable of performing his past relevant work as a police sergeant or a truck driver, but there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he could perform, such as a police clerk and a complaint evaluation officer. The ALJ, therefore, concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from May 5, 2015, the alleged onset date, through the date of his decision on October 2, 2017, and was, therefore, not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Counsel, and the Council affirmed. Plaintiff filed this action on August 23, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), contending that there were errors at multiple steps of the five-step analysis. He argues the ALJ (1) failed to recognize and consider all of his vocationally significant impairments at step two of the five-step sequential evaluation; (2) improperly substituted his own medical judgment for the medical opinion evidence of record; and (3) failed to carry his burden of establishing the existence of other work, in significant numbers, that Plaintiff can perform.

         On July 9, 2019, the magistrate judge issued his Report recommending the Court affirm the Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff was not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. Notably, the magistrate judge agreed with Plaintiff that the ALJ applied an improper legal standard in evaluating the severity of his impairments at step two of the five-step sequential analysis. The magistrate judge found, however, that “this error is irrelevant because [the ALJ] proceeded past step two of the sequential evaluation.” Report 8, ECF No. 17. The magistrate judge further concluded that even were the ALJ's error at step two relevant, “it did not affect Plaintiff's substantial rights because sufficient evidence supported the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff did not have a severe affective disorder in the form of depression.” Id. The magistrate judge also found that the “ALJ properly interpreted the medical opinion evidence of record rather than substituting his medical judgment.” Id. at 14. Finally, the magistrate judge rejected Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ failed to carry his burden of establishing the existence of other work, in significant numbers, that Plaintiff can perform. Id.

         On July 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed objections to the Report. The Commissioner did not file a response to Plaintiff's objections.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         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 the 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); Austin v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1170, 1147 (5th Cir. 1993). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a responsible mind might accept to support a conclusion.” Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1977); accord Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923. It is more then a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Boyd, 239 F.3d at 704; Perales, 402 U.S. at 401; Haywood v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 1463, 1466 (5th Cir. 1989). The district court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Copeland, 771 F.3d at 924; Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000); Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988). The Court must scrutinize the record, however, to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1383 (5th Cir. 1988). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only when there is no medical evidence or credible evidentiary choices in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Johnson, 864 F.2d at 343-44. If the findings are supported by substantial evidence, “they are conclusive and must be affirmed.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court “may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated for [the] decision.” Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (citation omitted).

         A disabled worker is entitled to monthly benefits under the Social Security Act if certain conditions are met. 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 twelve months. Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985).

         The Commissioner has promulgated a five-step sequential process to be used by hearing officers in evaluating a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f); Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 447-48 (5th Cir 2007). The hearing officer is required to ascertain: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that “meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1” of the regulations; (4) if the claimant has a “severe impairment” under the regulations, whether the claimant can perform his past work despite any limitations; and (5) if the claimant does not have the residual functional capacity to perform past work, whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and substantial work in the economy, considering his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f). In the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant bears the burden of proving disability; on the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there is substantial work in the national economy that claimant can perform. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Audler, 501 F.3d at 448. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant must then prove that he cannot in fact perform the work suggested. Waters v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 716, 718 (5th Cir. 2002). A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923; Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987) (citation omitted).

         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 evidence of pain and ...


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