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White v. Saul

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

August 26, 2019

CALLIE CHARLINE WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER PARTIALLY ACCEPTING FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          REED O'CONNOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Callie Charline White (“Plaintiff”) filed this action seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), [1] who denied her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Compl., ECF No. 1. The Commissioner has filed an answer, see Answer, ECF No. 12, and a certified copy of the transcript of the administrative proceedings, see SSA Admin. R. (hereinafter, “Tr.”), ECF No. 14-1, including the hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The parties have briefed the issues. See Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 16; Def.'s Br., ECF No. 17; Pl.'s Reply, ECF No. 18. 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 Recommendation (the “Report”), in which he recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision and dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. Report, ECF No. 19. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the Report. Objections, ECF No. 20. The Commissioner did not file a response to Plaintiff's objections.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court accepts the Report in part and declines to accept it in part as stated herein after reviewing all relevant matters of record, including the pleadings, legal briefing, transcript of the administrative record, Report, and the filed objections, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b)(3).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to a variety of ailments, including anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, a history of breast cancer, and obesity. After her application for disability insurance benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. That hearing was held on April 10, 2017, in Dallas, Texas. At the time of the hearing Plaintiff was forty-nine years old. She has a high school general equivalency diploma and past relevant work experience as an order puller, inspector, and warehouse coordinator. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to disability insurance benefits. At step one of the five-step sequential process, [2] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2015, the alleged onset date. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of fibromyalgia, migraines, status post-malignant neoplasm of breast, obesity, anxiety, and affective disorder; nevertheless, the ALJ found that her impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairment in the social security regulations. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] to perform light work, with certain limitations, but was incapable of performing her past relevant work. At step five, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff can work as a packer, assembler, and wire sorter-jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Counsel, and the Council affirmed. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court and argues the ALJ erred in finding her not disabled because he failed to properly consider all of her functional limitations in determining her RFC and failed to analyze the treating sources' opinions under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)'s factors. Plaintiff contends that, as a result, the RFC with respect to her mental and physical limitations is not supported by substantial evidence.

         On July 2, 2019, the magistrate judge issued his Report, accepting the Commissioner's arguments that the ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence, and recommending the Court affirm the Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff was not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. The magistrate judge found that “[s]ubstantial medical evidence of record supports the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's mental limitations and her RFC.” Report 12, ECF No. 19. He further found that the ALJ's failure to analyze the treating sources' opinions under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)'s factors did not constitute reversible error. Id. at 10-11.

         On July 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed objections to the Report. See ECF No. 20. 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).

         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 disability; and (4) the claimant's age, education, and work history. See Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995).

         The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the facts relating to a claim for disability benefits. See Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 557 (5th Cir. 1995) (citing Pierre v. Sullivan, 884 F.2d 799, 802 (5th Cir. 1989) (per curiam); Kane v. Heckler, 731 F.2d 1216, 1219 (5th Cir. 1984)). If the ALJ does not satisfy this duty, the resulting decision is not substantially justified. See Id. (citing Kane, 731 F.2d at 1219). However, the Court does not hold the ALJ to procedural perfection and will reverse the ALJ's decision as not supported by substantial evidence where the claimant shows that the ALJ failed to fulfill the duty to adequately develop the record only if that failure prejudiced Plaintiff, see Jones v. Astrue, 691 F.3d 730, 733 (5th Cir. 2012)-that is, only if Plaintiff's substantial rights have been affected, see Audler, 501 F.3d at 448 (citing Mays v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1362, 1364 (5th Cir. 1988) (per curiam)). “Prejudice can be established by showing that additional evidence would have been produced if the ALJ had fully developed the record, and that the additional evidence might have led to a different decision.” Ripley, 67 F.3d at 557 n.22 (citing Kane, 731 F.2d at 1220). Otherwise stated, Plaintiff “must show that [he] could and would have adduced evidence that might have altered the result.” Brock v. Chater, 84 F.3d 726, 728-29 (5th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (citing Kane, 731 F.2d at 1220).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff objects to the magistrate judge's findings and conclusion that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that she was not disabled. In support, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in finding her not disabled because he failed to properly consider all of her functional limitations in determining her RFC and failed to analyze the treating sources' opinions under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)'s factors. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that remand is appropriate because the ALJ failed to consider the factors under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) with respect to the opinions of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Wasiq Zaidi, and her treating physician, Dr. Gerald L. Ray. Because of this alleged error, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC with respect to her mental and physical limitations is not supported by substantial evidence. After conducting a ...


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