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Hernandez v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

September 18, 2019




         This is a civil action seeking judicial review of an administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Cruz Hernandez ("Plaintiff) appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act") and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act. (PL's Compl., ECF No. 1, at 1). The parties consented to the transfer of the case to this Court for determination and entry of judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Local Court Rule CV-72. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff was fifty-five years old at the time of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), dated December 23, 2016. See (R. 29, 35, 53).[2] Her past relevant work includes being a house cleaning maid and a sewing machine operator. (R. 38-39, 46-47, 197). On November 3, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and DIB and Supplemental Security Income benefits, in which she alleged disability beginning on September 1, 2009, due to arthritis and back pain. (R. 153-59, 160-70). After her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing by an ALJ. (R. 53-59, 92-97, 98).

         On September 1, 2016, a hearing was conducted before the ALJ. (R. 3 3-52). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset disability date to September 30, 2013. (R. 21, 36). On December 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits at step two of the five-step evaluation process on the basis that Plaintiffs impairments, "considered singly and in combination, do not significantly limit [Plaintiffs] ability to perform basic work activities." (R. 28). On December 15, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final administrative decision. (R. 1-8).

         In this appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and results from legal error. (PL's Br., ECF No. 16, at 2). Specifically, Plaintiff contends: (1) that the ALJ did not consider the combined impacts of her impairments as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523 and (2) that the ALJ failed to properly develop the record and weigh the medical opinion evidence and, therefore, did not follow proper legal standards. Id.


         A. Standard of Review The Court's review is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Myers v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 617, 619 (5th Cir. 2001) (citing Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence "means-and means only-'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154, (2019) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995) (quoting Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993)). A rinding of "no substantial evidence" will be made only where there is a "conspicuous absence of credible choices" or "no contrary medical evidence." Abshire v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 638, 640 (5th Cir. 1988) (quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, the Court may not reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000). The Court may not substitute its own judgment "even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner's] decision." Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). "Conflicts in evidence are for the [Commissioner] and not the courts to resolve." Spellman, 1 F.3d at 360 (quoting Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, "they are conclusive and must be affirmed." Id. However, "[t]he ALJ's decision must stand or fall with the reasons set forth in the ALJ's decision, as adopted by the Appeals Council." Newton, 209 F.3d at 455.

         B. Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process

         Under the Social Security Act, "disability" means, in relevant part, 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 12 months . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). This means that:

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that 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. . . .

Id. at § 423(d)(2)(A)

         The Social Security Administration Regulations (the "Regulations") prescribe a "five-step sequential evaluation process" to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1) & 416.920(a)(1). If, at any step of the process, the ALJ finds that the claimant is either disabled or not disabled, the ALJ will make his determination as to disability and will not continue with a consideration of the remaining steps. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4) & 416.920(a)(4).

         At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the ALJ will find the claimant is not disabled and will not continue to step two. Id.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairment(s). Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is severe within the meaning of the regulations if it "significantly limits" an individual's "ability to perform basic work activities." Id. at §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). "[A]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience." SSR 85-28, at *3 (citing Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099 (5th Cir. 1985). If the ALJ determines that the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that meet the duration requirement, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and will not continue to step three. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii)

         At the third step, the ALJ also considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairment(s), specifically whether the impairment(s) meets the duration requirement and "meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart . . . ." Id. at ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the ...

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