United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division
FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
REBECCA RUTHERFORD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
one of the five-step sequential evaluation,  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.
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.
"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
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.
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.
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