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Talamantes v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019




         This is a civil action seeking judicial review of an administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Gonzalo Talamantes ("Plaintiff) appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Pl's Compl., ECF No. 5, 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 sixty-one years old at the time he last met the insured status requirements of sections the Social Security Act. (R. 17, 367).[2] The decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is dated January 23, 2017. See (R. 25). Plaintiffs past relevant work is that of a construction worker, specifically "cement work." (R. 122, 128, 419). On July 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, in which he alleged disability beginning on June 24, 2013, due to bad stomach problems, appendix, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. (R. 365-84, 418). After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing by an ALJ. (R. 144-51, 152-60, 197-98).

         On December 18, 2014, a hearing was conducted before the ALJ. (R. 13 0-41). On February 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits at step five of the five-step sequential evaluation process on the basis that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as dishwasher. (R. 167-74). Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council who remanded the case to the ALJ on July 2, 2016, because the ALJ's decision did not include sufficient rationale for the residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment and the jobs identified by the vocational expert, and relied on by the ALJ at step five, conflicted with the assessed RFC. (R. 180-82). The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to: (1) obtain additional evidence, if warranted; (2) further consider the RFC, evaluate treating and examining source opinions in accordance with the Social Security Administration Regulations (the "Regulations") and Social Security Rulings, and provide specific references to evidence of record to support RFC; and (3) if warranted, obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base. (R. 181).

         On December 8, 2016, a second hearing was held before a different ALJ. (R. 114-29). Thereafter, on January 23, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits at step two of the five-step sequential evaluation process, concluding that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments because Plaintiffs physical and mental impairments, "considered singly and in combination, do not significantly limit [Plaintiffs] ability to perform basic work activities." (R. 25). On March 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final administrative decision. (R. 1-6).

         In this appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's step-two finding is erroneous and warrants remand. (Pl's Br., ECF No. 18, at 2).


         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 finding 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 ...

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