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Wade v. Berryhill

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

September 26, 2019

CATHERINE ELAYNE WADE
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          K. NI'COLE MITCHELL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On March 2, 2018, 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 discussed 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 September 29, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2010. The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing and issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council vacated the decision and remanded the matter to the ALJ for a new hearing. The ALJ conducted a hearing and issued a second unfavorable decision on July 3, 2014. The Appeals Council again vacated the ALJ’s decision and remanded the matter for a new hearing.

         The ALJ conducted a third hearing on June 21, 2016. The ALJ issued a decision on February 17, 2017, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) the Social Security Act. Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on January 2, 2018. As a result, the ALJ’s decision became that of the Commissioner. After receiving an extension of time from the Appeals Council to file a civil action, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on March 2, 2018, 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).

         ALJ’S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings in his February 17, 2017 decision:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 CFR § 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with neuropathy; status post partial amputation of right foot; sensory peripheral polyneuropathy; degenerative disc disease; and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have 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. The claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined by 20 CFR 404.1567 and 20 CFR 416.967, except that she can stand/walk continuously for 30 minutes; frequently, but not constantly, perform bilateral reaching, handling, fingering, and pushing/pulling; and occasionally perform overhead reaching and operate bilateral foot controls. She occasionally can work around dust, odors, fumes, and humidity/wetness, but she cannot operate motor vehicles, work around moving machinery, or work in temperature extremes.
6. I applied the expedited process provided in 20 CFR 404.1520(h) & 416.920(h), deferred any finding regarding the younger claimant’s ability to perform past relevant work and proceeded to Step 5 of the sequential evaluation of disability.
7. The claimant was born on September 15, 1969, and was 40 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18–44, on the alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to a younger individual age 45–49 (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because applying the Medical-Vocational Rules supports a finding of “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills ...

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