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James E. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

September 11, 2019

JAMES E.[1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          REBECCA RUTHERFORD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed this civil action seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Agency"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the District Court should AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         Background

         Plaintiff alleges he is disabled due to a variety of impairments, including back and knee pain, obesity, and depression. PL's Br. 2 (ECF No. 14). After his application for supplemental security income (SSI) was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Administrative Record (A.R.) 97-102, 106-09, 115-19, 124-25 (ECF No. 11-1). That hearing occurred in Dallas, Texas, on May 16, 2017. A.R. 8, 36-69. Plaintiff appeared pro se at the hearing and testified. A.R. 11, 38. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 35 years old. A.R. 21. He has less than a high school education and no past work experience. A.R. 16, 22, 44.

         At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, [2] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 25, 2014- the date he protectively filed his application for SSI benefits. A.R. 13. At steps two and three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of morbid obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and degenerative joint disease; nonetheless, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or equal the severity of any listed impairment in the social security regulations. A.R. 13-16. At steps four and five, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of sedentary work and, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), determined that Plaintiff could work as a dowel inspector, a clock and watch assembler, and a lens inserter-jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. A.R. 16-20, 22-23. Therefore, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to SSI benefits. A.R. 22.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, and the Council affirmed. A.R. 1-7, 161-69. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court in which he argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to fully develop the record after Plaintiff elected to proceed pro se at the administrative hearing. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is ripe for determination.

         Legal Standards

         Judicial "review of Social Security disability cases 'is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard.'" Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005)); see also Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 ("Substantial evidence is 'more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance.'") (quoting Perez, 415 F.3d at 461). The Commissioner, and not the courts, resolves conflicts in the evidence; thereafter, the Court may not "reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo." Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995) (per curiam) (citing Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392-93 (5th Cir. 1985); Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). Accordingly, the Court may not substitute its own judgment for the Commissioner's, and it may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated to support his decision. Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (citing Cole v. Barnhart, 288 F.3d 149, 151 (5th Cir. 2002) (per curiam)).

         Analysis

         In a single ground for relief, Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed because the ALJ failed to obtain a valid waiver of his right representation and that failure resulted in an unfair administrative hearing and rendered the ALJ's findings of fact legally erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence.

         A claimant has a statutory right to counsel at a Social Security hearing. 42 U.S.C. § 406; see also Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 413 (5th Cir. 1981) ("While hearings before the ALJ are not adversary in nature, a lawyer or other counsel may be of great service to claimants in administrative proceedings.") (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970). The claimant may, however, waive this right if given sufficient information to enable him to decide intelligently whether to retain counsel or proceed pro se. Clark v. Schweiker, 652 F.2d 399, 403-404 (5th Cir. 1981). "Sufficient information" generally includes explanations of the possibility of free counsel, a contingency agreement, and the limitation on attorney's fees awarded from past due benefits.

         Id.

         Here, the ALJ advised Plaintiff of his right to be represented at the hearing in a November 17, 2016 letter acknowledging his request for an administrative hearing. A.R. 131-33. The ...


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