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Denise v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Tyler Division

September 26, 2019

DARCEL DENISE CHAMBERS
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          K. NI'COLE MITCHELL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On November 29, 2017, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit by filing a complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision denying her application for Social Security benefits. The matter was transferred to the undersigned with the consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. For the reasons below, the Commissioner’s final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration consistent with this opinion.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and an application for Supplemental Security Income on January 27, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of March 6, 2013. The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). An ALJ conducted a hearing on January 14, 2016, and then conducted a supplemental hearing on September 19, 2016. The ALJ issued a decision on October 27, 2016, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to February 16, 2016, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on October 6, 2017. As a result, the ALJ’s decision became that of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on November 29, 2017, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision.

         STANDARD

         Title II of the Act provides for federal disability insurance benefits. Title XVI of the Act provides for supplemental security income for the disabled. The relevant law and regulations governing the determination of disability under a claim for disability insurance benefits are identical to those governing the determination under a claim for supplemental security income. See Davis v. Heckler, 759 F.2d 432, 435 n. 1 (5th Cir. 1983); Rivers v. Schweiker, 684 F.2d 1144, 1146, n. 2 (5th Cir. 1982); Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1105 (5th Cir. 1980).

         Judicial review of the denial of disability benefits under section 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is limited to “determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the proper legal standards were used in evaluating the evidence.” Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 435 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990)); Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343–44 (5thCir. 1988) (citing Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)). Accordingly, the Court “may not reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [the Court’s] judgment for the [Commissioner’s], even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner’s] decision.” Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435 (quoting Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988)); see Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993); Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992); Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985). Rather, conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide. Spellman, 1 F.3d at 360 (citing Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)); Anthony, 954 F.2d at 295 (citing Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983)). A decision on the ultimate issue of whether a claimant is disabled, as defined in the Act, rests with the Commissioner. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 455–56 (5th Cir. 2000); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-5p.

         “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance-that is, enough that a reasonable mind would judge it sufficient to support the decision.” Pena v. Astrue, 271 Fed.Appx. 382, 383 (5th Cir. 2003) (citing Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994)). Substantial evidence includes four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the plaintiff’s age, education, and work history. Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1302 n. 4 (5th Cir. 1987). If supported by substantial evidence, the decision of the Commissioner is conclusive and must be affirmed. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). However, the Court must do more than “rubber stamp” the Administrative Law Judge’s decision; the Court must “scrutinize the record and take into account whatever fairly detracts from the substantiality of evidence supporting the [Commissioner’s] findings.” Cook, 750 F.2d at 393 (5th Cir. 1985). The Court may remand for additional evidence if substantial evidence is lacking or “upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Latham v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 482, 483 (5th Cir. 1994).

         A claimant for disability has the burden of proving a disability. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 125 (5th Cir. 1991). The Act defines “disability” as an “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 can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A) and 423(d)(1)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is an anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormality which is demonstrable by acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner must utilize a five– step sequential process. Villa, 895 F.2d 1022. A finding of “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step of the sequential process ends the inquiry. Id.; see Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435 (citing Harrell, 862 F.2d at 475). Under the five–step sequential analysis, the Commissioner must determine at Step One whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. At Step Two, the Commissioner must determine whether one or more of the claimant’s impairments are severe. At Step Three, the commissioner must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix I. Prior to moving to Step Four, the Commissioner must determine the claimant’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), or the most that the claimant can do given his impairments, both severe and non–severe. Then, at Step Four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work. Finally, at Step Five, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant can perform other work available in the local or national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)–(f). An affirmative answer at Step One or a negative answer at Steps Two, Four, or Five results in a finding of “not disabled.” See Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. An affirmative answer at Step Three, or an affirmative answer at Steps Four and Five, creates a presumption of disability. Id. To obtain Title II disability benefits, a plaintiff must show that he was disabled on or before the last day of his insured status. Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 411 (5th Cir. 1981), cert denied, 455 U.S. 912, 102 S.Ct. 1263, 71 L.Ed.2d 452 (1982). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps, but shifts to the Commissioner at Step Five if the claimant shows that he cannot perform his past relevant work. Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 632–33 (5th Cir. 1989) (per curiam).

         The procedure for evaluating a mental impairment is set forth in 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a (the “special technique” for assessing mental impairments, supplementing the five-step sequential analysis). First, the ALJ must determine the presence or absence of certain medical findings relevant to the ability to work. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1). Second, when the claimant establishes these medical findings, the ALJ must rate the degree of functional loss resulting from the impairment by considering four areas of function: (a) activities of daily living; (b) social functioning; (c) concentration, persistence, or pace; and (d) episodes of decompensation. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a(c)(2–4), 416.920a(c)(2–4). Third, after rating the degree of loss, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe mental impairment. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a(d), 416.920a(d). If the ALJ’s assessment is “none” or “mild” in the first three areas of function, and is “none” in the fourth area of function, the claimant’s mental impairment is “not severe, unless the evidence otherwise indicates that there is more than a minimal limitation in [the claimant’s] ability to do basic work activities.” 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a(d)(1), 416.920a(d)(1). Fourth, when a mental impairment is found to be severe, the ALJ must determine if it meets or equals a Listing. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a(d)(2), 416.920a(d)(2). Finally, if a Listing is not met, the ALJ must then perform a residual functional capacity assessment, and the ALJ’s decision “must incorporate the pertinent findings and conclusions” regarding the claimant’s mental impairment, including “a specific finding as to the degree of limitation in each of the functional areas described in [§§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3)].” 20 CFR §§ 404.1520a(d)(3) and (e)(2), 416.920a(d)(3) and (e)(2).

         ALJ’S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings in his October 27, 2016 decision:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (20 CFR § 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
3. Since the alleged onset of disability, March 6, 2013, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the spine, degenerative joint disease bilateral knees, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. Since the alleged onset date of disability, March 6, 2013, the claimant has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that prior to February 16, 2016, the date the claimant became disabled, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) in that she can lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk 6 hours of an 8 hour workday and sit for 6 hours of an 8 hour workday. However, she was limited to performing simple, repetitive tasks.
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that beginning on February 16, 2016, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) in that she can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk 6 hours of an 8 hour workday and sit for 6 hours of an 8 hour workday. She is, mentally, limited to performing simple, repetitive tasks.
7. Since March 6, 2013, the claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
8. Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was an individual of advanced age. The claimant’s age category has not changed since the established disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
9. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR ...

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