Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Latina M. H. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

September 27, 2019

LATINA M. H., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          BARBARA M. G. LYNN CHIEF JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Latina M. H.[1] filed a civil action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final adverse decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. For the reasons explained below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s decision.

         Background

         Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to several impairments, including “chronic headaches, pinch nerve left side, back issues, chronic pain, depression, circulation in feet, diabetic, eye problem blurred vision, sleep apnea, and stomach issues.” Pl.’s Br. 4 (ECF No. 21); Administrative Record 73-74 (“A.R.”) (ECF No. 16-1). After her applications for disability insurance benefits[2] and supplemental security income were denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing took place in Dallas, Texas, on March 14, 2017. A.R. 29. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 44 years old. See Id . 41. She has a bachelor’s degree, can communicate in English, and has past work experience as an admissions clerk and financial-aid specialist. Id. 40-41, 53.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to Medicare Qualified Government Employment benefits or supplemental security income. Id. 42. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, 3 the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2014. Id. 31. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of migraine headaches, lumbar and cervical spine degenerative disc disease, diabetes, and obesity; nonetheless, the ALJ found that her impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or equal the severity of any listed impairment in the social security regulations. Id. 32-35. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of “light work” but determined that she could perform her past relevant work because it does not require engaging in work-related activities precluded by her RFC. Id. 36-42. At step five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was also capable of working as a document preparer, touch-up screener, and food and beverage order clerk-jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. 42.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed. Id. 6. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court and argues the ALJ erred in finding her not disabled because (1) he failed to support his step-two rejection of her mental health impairments with substantial evidence, and (2) his RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence since, though he credited Plaintiff’s treating physician’s opinion, he failed to incorporate portions of that opinion into his final RFC determination without explanation. Pl.’s Br. 4.

         Legal Standards

         Judicial “review of Social Security disability cases ‘is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard.’” Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (quoting Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005)); see also Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (quoting Perez, 415 F.3d at 461) (“Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance.’”). The Commissioner, and not the courts, resolves conflicts in the evidence; thereafter, the Court may not “reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo.” Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 174 (5th Cir. 1995) (per curiam) (citing Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392-93 (5th Cir. 1985); Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983) (per curiam)). Accordingly, the Court may not substitute its own judgment for the Commissioner’s, and it may affirm only on the grounds that the Commissioner stated to support his decision. Copeland, 771 F.3d at 923 (citing Cole v. Barnhart, 288 F.3d 149, 151 (5th Cir. 2002) (per curiam)).

         Analysis I.

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ erred because his “rejection of [Plaintiff’s] mental health issues at Step Two” is not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.’s Br. 13. The Court finds, however, that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s step-two finding that Plaintiff’s mental health impairments were not severe.

         The Social Security 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (defining “disability” for the purpose of obtaining disability insurance benefits); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(3)(A) (utilizing the same definition with respect to supplemental security income). “[A]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality having such minimal effect on an individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education or work experience.” Loza v. Apfel, 219 F.3d 378, 392 (5th Cir. 2000) (emphasis in original) (citing Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1101 (5th Cir. 1985)). ALJs must utilize “the ‘special technique’” to evaluate mental impairments. Randall v. Astrue, 570 F.3d 651, 658 (5th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a). The technique “requires an ALJ to rate the degree of functional limitation regarding each medically determinable mental impairment he finds.” Walker v. Colvin, 2015 WL 5836263, at *11 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(a)). This is done by evaluating four broad functional areas: activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3)). If the ALJ determines the plaintiff has mild or no limitation in the first three areas and no limitation in the fourth area, the impairment will be found not severe, “unless there is evidence that indicates that there is more than a minimal limitation in the ability to do basic work activities.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(1)); see also Andrews v. Astrue, 917 F.Supp.2d 624, 635 (N.D. Tex. 2013) (citations omitted).

         Plaintiff does not contend that the ALJ applied an improper standard in evaluating the severity of her mental impairments; rather, she argues the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff’s depression is not severe is unsupported by substantial evidence. Pl.’s Br. 13. As a result, she argues the ALJ further erred by not incorporating Plaintiff’s mental impairments into her RFC. Id. 16. But the ALJ properly considered the four broad areas of mental functioning in determining Plaintiff’s mental impairments to be non-severe and supported his findings with substantial evidence. A.R. 34. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has “no limitation in understanding, remembering or applying information”; “no limitation in interacting with others”; “no limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace”; and “no limitation in adapting or managing oneself.” Id. In support of his finding that Plaintiff has no limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information, the ALJ cites Plaintiff’s testimony that she earned a bachelor’s degree and can follow written instructions “okay” and spoken instructions well. Id. 34, 53, 226. The ALJ supports his finding that Plaintiff has no limitation in interacting with others by citing Plaintiff’s testimony that she “spends time with others on the phone, goes out to eat, goes out to the movies, and watches her grandchildren play at the playground.” Id. 34, 60-61. With respect to his finding that Plaintiff has no limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, the ALJ states that Plaintiff “reported she cannot pay attention long, 15 minutes at most, and does not finish what she starts, ” but he notes the medical evidence contains no findings substantiating any such limitation. Id. 34, 226. Last, the ALJ supports his finding that Plaintiff has no limitation in adapting or managing oneself with Plaintiff’s testimony that she lives in an apartment by herself, makes meals, gets help with her housework from her daughter, goes out alone, drives, shops, and manages her finances. Id. 34-35, 52-53, 58-61. Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no or mild limitation in any of the functional areas, and there is no evidence that her mental impairments “create any specific functional limitations regarding [her] ability to perform work related activities, ” he properly found her mental impairments non-severe. Id. 35.

         Additionally, after reviewing the record, the ALJ concluded that there is no evidence that Plaintiff’s mental impairments meet the program’s durational requirement. Id. Though Plaintiff’s treating, primary-care physician, Dr. Tamika L. Perry, D.O., diagnosed Plaintiff with depression on May 13, 2014, and treated her for “transient mental complaints . . . from the end of July through mid-September 2014, ” once Plaintiff “established care with Dr. Ramos, M.D., in September 2014, . . . she rarely, if ever, voiced mental complaints and was consistently within normal limits on mental status examination.” Id. 33, 454. Plaintiff herself testified that she is prescribed medication for depression but no longer receives counseling, and, “on filing, she attributed any alleged functional limitations to physical rather than mental complaints.” Id. 33, 56, 221-28. In her brief, Plaintiff asserts that she was treated for depression for more than 12 months and cites her Hickory Trail Hospital Psychiatric medical records from April 4, 2011, and Parkland Health medical records from December 11, 2015, April 27, 2016, and September 11, 2016. Pl.’s Br. 14; A.R. 651, 861, 883, 902. The Hickory Trail records, however, are dated years before Plaintiff’s onset date, [4] and, therefore, are not within the relevant period. The Parkland records are within the relevant period, but they fail to support any continuity of treatment because they only reference Plaintiff’s depression as part of her past medical history. Because there is no evidence that Plaintiff’s mental impairments lasted more than 12 months, the ALJ properly concluded that they did not meet the durational requirement under the Social Security Act, and are, therefore, not severe.

         Further, the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff’s mental impairments are non-severe is supported by substantial evidence, separate from the ALJ’s evaluation of Plaintiff’s mental impairments under the “technique” or any failure to meet the durational requirement. Substantial evidence under the Social Security Act “means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. And an impairment is not severe where it does not interfere with an individual’s ability to work. See Loza, 219 F.3d at 392; see also Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 348 (5th Cir. 1988) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1530, 416.930; Lovelace, 813 F.2d at 59) (“If an impairment reasonably can be remedied or controlled by medication or therapy, it cannot serve as a basis for a finding of disability.”). Here, the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s mental impairments are not severe because they do not “create any specific functional limitations regarding [her] ability to perform work related activities, ” is supported by treating physician Dr. Perry’s September 9, 2015 mental functional assessment questionnaire in which she stated “that [Plaintiff’s] mental condition does not impose more than minimal limitations.” A.R. 33, 586. The ALJ also noted that Dr. Perry’s opinion is consistent with Plaintiff’s new primary-care physician Dr. Nosheen Rizvi Shah, M.D.’s, treating notes and mental status examinations of Plaintiff. Id. 33-34. Plaintiff established care with Dr. Shah on September 15, 2015, and on that date, she noted that Plaintiff “ha[d] a normal mood and affect” and that “[h]er behavior [was] normal.” Id. 788. Additionally, on March 4, 2015, treating neurologist Dr. Yong He, M.D.’s, mental status examination reports that Plaintiff “was ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.