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Lark v. Saul

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

September 16, 2019




         Before the Magistrate Judge[2] in this social security appeal is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Brief in Support (Document No. 20), and Memorandum in Support (Document No. 21), and Plaintiffs Responses (Document No. 22 & 23). After considering the motion for summary judgment, the responses, the administrative record, and the applicable law, the Magistrate Judge ORDERS, for the reasons set forth below, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 20) is DENIED, and the decision of the Commissioner is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff, Adrian Michael Lark, ("Lark") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and supplemental security income ("SSI"). Lark argues that substantial evidence does not support the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision, and the ALJ, William Sharp, committed errors of law when he found that Lark was not disabled. According to Lark, the ALJ, the ALJ erred with respect to his consideration of the disability determination made by the Veterans Administration ("VA"), and that the ALJ improperly rejected medical opinion evidence from his various treating physicians at the VA. Lark seeks an order reversing the ALJ's decision and awarding benefits, or in the alternative, remanding his claim for further consideration. The Commissioner argues that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision that Lark was not disabled, that the decision comports with applicable law, and that the decision should, therefore, be affirmed.

         11. Administrative Proceedings

         Lark filed for DIB and SSI on February 14, 2014, claiming he has been disabled since June 12, 2007. (Tr. 291-301, 313-314). The Social Security Administration denied his applications at the initial and reconsideration stages. (Tr. 183-240, 249-256, 264-266). Thereafter, Lark requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 270-271). The Social Security Administration granted his request, and the ALJ held a hearing on November 5, 2015. (Tr. 142-182). On December 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Lark was not disabled. (125-136).

         Lark sought review by the Appeals Council of the ALJ's adverse decision. The Appeals Council will grant a request to review an ALJ's decision if any of the following circumstances are present: (1) it appears that the ALJ abused his discretion; (2) the ALJ made an error of law in reaching his conclusion; (3) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's actions, findings, or conclusions; (4) a broad policy issue may affect the public interest or (5) there is new and material evidence and the decision is contrary to the weight of all the record evidence. The Appeals Council, on March 30, 2017, after reviewing Lark's submitted evidence (Tr. 7-74, 77-121) concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Lark's request for review. (Tr. 1-6). The ALJ's findings and decision thus became final. Lark has timely filed his appeal of the ALJ's decision. The Commissioner has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 20). Plaintiff has responded to the Motion. (Document Nos. 22 & 23). This appeal is now ripe for ruling.

         The evidence is set forth in the transcript, pages 1 through2033. (Document Nos. 12& 13). There is no dispute as to the facts contained therein.

         III. Standard for Review of Agency Decision

         The court, in its review of a denial of disability benefits, is only "to [determine] (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, and (2) whether the Commissioner's decision comports with relevant legal standards." Jones v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 692, 693 (5th Cir. 1999). Indeed, Title 42, Section 405(g) limits judicial review of the Commissioner's decision as follows: "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Act specifically grants the district court the power to enter judgment, upon the pleadings, and transcript, "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security with or without remanding the case for a rehearing" when not supported by substantial evidence. Id. While it is incumbent upon the court to examine the record in its entirety to decide whether the decision is supportable, Simmons v. Harris, 602 F.2d 1233, 1236 (5th Cir. 1979), the court may not "reweigh the evidence in the record nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Chaparo v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 1008, 1009 (5th Cir. 1987); see also Jones at 693; Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve. Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992).

         The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence," as used in the Act, to be "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and less than a preponderance." Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993). The evidence must create more than "a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established, but no 'substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a 'conspicuous absence of credible choices' or 'no contrary medical evidence.'" Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983) (quoting Hemphill v. Weinberger, 483 F.2d 1127 (5th Cir. 1973)).

         IV. Burden of Proof

         An individual claiming entitlement to disability insurance benefits under the Act has the burden of proving his disability. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 344 (5th Cir. 1988). The Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The impairment must be proven through medically accepted clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. Id. § 423(d)(3). The impairment must be so severe as to limit the claimant in the following manner:

he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job ...

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