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Mundy v. Berryhill

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

September 12, 2019

CYNTHIA GARZA MUNDY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Ignacio Torteya, III United States Magistrate Judge.

         The Court is in receipt of Plaintiff Cynthia Garza Mundy's Motion for Summary Judgment (hereinafter, Garza Mundy's "Motion" or "Motion for Summary Judgment"), and Defendant Nancy Berryhill's Response. Dkt. Nos. 15, 16. For the reasons provided below, it is recommended that the Court DENY Garza Mundy's Motion, and AFFIRM Commissioner Berryhill's final decision in Garza Mundy's underlying administrative action.

         I. Jurisdiction

         Garza Mundy seeks judicial review of Commissioner Berryhill's final decision, which denied Garza Mundy's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter, the "Act"). See Dkt. No. 1 at 2; Dkt. No. 15 at 1. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Background

         Ms. Garza Mundy protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on June 4, 2015. Dkt. 15 at l.[1] Garza Mundy claimed that her disability began on May 29, 2015. TR at 49-51, 492. She stated that she was disabled due to various impairments: lupus, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, right knee arthritis, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, polyarthritis, dorsalgia, general osteoarthritis, calcific tendinosis of the left shoulder and degenerative changes, major depressive disorder, and migraine headaches. Id. at 52. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her claim initially on September 16, 2015 and upon reconsideration on October 27, 2015. Id. at 49. Garza Mundy later filed a written request for a hearing on November 3, 2015. Id. at 49.

         Based on Garza Mundy's request for a hearing, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jessica Hodgson conducted a de novo administrative hearing on August 15, 2017. Id. at 49, 261-317, 449. Garza Mundy was represented by an attorney, John R. Heard, at the hearing. Id. at 49. Garza Mundy testified at the hearing, along with a vocational expert. Id. at 49, 57. The ALJ issued her decision denying benefits on October 27, 2017. Id. at 1, 46. The ALJ determined that Garza Mundy had not been disabled between May 29, 2015 and the date of her decision (hereinafter, the "relevant period"). Id. at 50. Garza Mundy appealed to the Appeals Council, whereby she submitted new evidence. TR at l.[2] The Appeals Council denied Garza Mundy's request for review on September 8, 2018. Id. at 1-4. The Appeals Council's denial made the ALJ's decision final. TR at 1. Garza Mundy timely filed her instant Complaint on October 26, 2018. Dkt. No. 1 at 4-5; see also TR at 2, 3 (notifying Garza Mundy that her civil complaint must be filed within 60 days of receiving the Appeals Council's letter dated September 8, 2018). On January 7, 2019, Berryhill filed her Answer to Garza Mundy's Complaint, along with a certified copy of the transcript of the underlying record in this case. See Dkt. No. 10 and Dkt. No. 11 through Dkt. No. 11-17'. Garza Mundy filed her Motion for Summary Judgment on February 8, 2019. Dkt. No. 14, 15. Berryhill filed her Response on March 8, 2019. Dkt. No. 16.

         III. Standard of Review

         Provided a district court allows the parties to present their arguments, and enters judgment based solely on the pleadings and the record, the court may review the Commissioner's final decision and enter summary judgment pursuant to FED. R. CIVIL. P. 56. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Flores v. Heckler, 755 F.2d 401, 403 (5th Cir. 1985); Lovett v. Schweiker, 667 F.2d 1, 2 (5th Cir. 1981). Federal court review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the proper legal standards were used in evaluating the evidence; and (2) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision that the claimant is not disabled as defined by the Act. Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014); Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 492, 496 (5th Cir. 1999).

         Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as sufficient to support a conclusion. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Id. A no-substantial-evidence finding is appropriate only when no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings exist to support the decision. Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001). If the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence in the record, the findings are conclusive and must be affirmed. Brown, 192 F.3d at 496. Under this standard of review, the court must scrutinize the record to determine if such evidence is present. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343 (5th Cir. 1988) (per curiam); Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985) ("This standard of review is not a rubber stamp for the Secretary's decision and involves more than a search for evidence supporting the Secretary's findings.").

         Evidentiary conflicts are for the Commissioner, not the courts, to resolve. Brown, 192 F.3d at 496. A court may not reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. This is true even when the weight of the evidence does not support the Commissioner's decision. Id. (citing Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343). The court's task is deferential judicial review of the Commissioner's disability decision, but not so deferential as to result in meaningless review. Id. When determining if substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, the court must weigh: (1) the objective medical facts, (2) the diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians, (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability, and (4) the claimant's age, education and work history. Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995); Connie G. v. Berryhill, No. 3:17-CV-03342-M (BT), 2019 WL 1294441, at *2 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 21, 2019) (same).

         IV. Establishing Disability

         A claimant is not entitled to benefits under Titles II and XVI unless they qualify as disabled, as that term is defined by the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Heckler v. Campell, 461 U.S. 458, 459-61 (1983). The Act defines disability the same way under both Titles, and the implementing regulations governing DIB and SSI are substantially identical. Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994) (same).[3] Under the Act, disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A sequential five-step process is used to determine whether a claimant qualifies as disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), § 416.920(a)(4).

         At steps one through four, claimants bear the burden of proving that: (1) they have not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period; (2) they have one or more severe impairments; (3) their impairment(s) qualify as either a listed impairment in the appendix to the regulations, or equivalent to a listed impairment; and, (4) if they do not have an impairment or combination of impairments qualifying as a listed impairment or its equivalent, the impairment or combination of impairments they do have still gives them a residual functioning capacity that prevents them from performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iv); Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 n.2 (5th Cir. 1995) (same).[4]Once the claimants meet their burden at steps one through four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that the claimants can perform substantial gainful employment available in the national economy. Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236-37 (5th Cir. 1994). The burden then shifts back to the claimant to rebut this finding. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 453 (5th Cir. 2000). A determination at any step that the claimant is or is not disabled ends the inquiry. Leggett, 67 F.3d at 564.

         V. Discussion

         Garza Mundy in her applications for SSI and DIB benefits stated that she is disabled due to various impairments, which the ALJ determined were "severe" and found support for the following: lupus, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, right knee arthritis, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, polyarthritis, dorsalgia general osteoarthritis, calcific tendinosis of the left shoulder and degenerative changes, major depressive disorder, and migraine headaches. TR at 52. In her Motion for Summary Judgment, Garza Mundy raises two grounds for relief arguing that the ALJ: (1) erred in dismissing medical opinion regarding her physical and mental impairments; and (2) failed to consider work history as a factor to support the credibility of her claims. Dkt. No. 15 at 1, 4, 17, 26. Berryhill disputes these allegations and states that the ALJ decision must be affirmed because it comports with the regulations and is supported by the record. Dkt. No. 16 at 7-9.

         A. The AL J's Decision

         At step one, the ALJ found that Garza Mundy had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since May 29, 2015. TR at 51. At step two, the ALJ found that Garza Mundy had the following severe impairments: lupus, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, right knee arthritis, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, polyarthritis, dorsalgia, general osteoarthritis, calcific tendinosis of the left shoulder and degenerative changes, major depressive disorder, and migraine headaches. Id. at 52. At step three, the ALJ found that Garza Mundy's impairments failed to meet or equal a listed impairment for presumptive disability under the regulations. Id. Specifically, the ALJ determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation of worsening symptoms, medical treatment remained unchanged despite alleged severity, any symptom flares stemmed from situational stressors, and mental impairments did not rise to the level of an extreme limitation. Id. at 52-54. As a result, the ALJ found that Garza Mundy's claims concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely consistent with the evidence in the record. Id. at 55.

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ found that Garza Mundy had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and § 416.967(a), with some exceptions. TR at 54. The ALJ found that Garza Mundy could perform sedentary work, except that:

1. She could occasionally lift and carry 10 pounds;
2. She could sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with alternations between sitting and standing for 5 ...

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