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Bridget B. P. v. Saul

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

September 30, 2019

BRIDGET B. P., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Bridget B. P.[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.


         Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to several impairments, including “depression, thoughts of suicide, headaches, back injuries, and insomnia.” Def.’s Br. 5 (ECF No. 19); Administrative Record 102, 115, 129, 295, 314 (“A.R.”) (ECF No. 12-1). After her application for disabled widow’s benefits was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). That hearing took place via video on January 30, 2017, with Plaintiff appearing in Dallas, Texas, and the ALJ presiding over the hearing from McAlester, Oklahoma. A.R. 15. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 56 years old. Id. 25, 74. She has a bachelor’s degree, can communicate in English, and has past work experience as a secondary teacher and home attendant. Id. 25, 76.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to disabled widow’s benefits. Id. 26-27. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation, [2] the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2013. Id. 17. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of depression and anxiety; 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. 18-19. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with certain non-exertional limitations preventing her from performing work at a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) level greater than two. Id. 21. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work because its demands exceed her residual functional capacity. Id. 25. At step five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of working as a motor-vehicle assembler, kitchen helper, and small-products assembler-jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. 26.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed. Id. 12. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court and argues the ALJ erred in finding her not disabled because (1) the evidence supports that her impairments meet or medically equal a listed impairment, and (2) he failed to give Plaintiff’s treating physician’s opinion the proper weight. Pl.’s Br. 5, 7, 12 (ECF No. 18).

         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)).



         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ erred by “[im]properly consider[ing] and evaluat[ing] whether Plaintiff’s impairment[s] meet[ ] or equal[ ] Listings 12.04 and/or 12.06, especially since the evidence of record supports such a finding.” Pl.’s Br. 7. The Court finds, however, that the ALJ’s step-three finding that Plaintiff’s severe impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment is supported by substantial evidence.

         The Social Security Administration considers the impairments included in the regulatory listings (the “Listings”) so severe that they automatically preclude the claimant from substantial gainful activity. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a)). Thus, meeting an impairment in the Listings serves as a “short-cut” for the claimant, since the impairment renders her per se disabled. Elam v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 755 (E.D. Tex. 2005) (citing Albritton v. Sullivan, 889 F.2d 640, 642 (5th Cir. 1989); Barajas, 738 F.2d at 644). A claimant must establish that she satisfies all of the criteria in a Listing, including any relevant criteria in the introductory sections, in order to qualify as disabled under that particular Listing. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(c)(3). When a claimant’s impairment is not the same as a listed impairment, the adjudicator must determine whether such an impairment is medically equivalent to a listed impairment; to determine medical equivalence, he or she evaluates whether a claimant’s “symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings are at least equal in severity to the listed criteria.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(d)(3). “An impairment that manifests only some of the requisite criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 530 (citing S.S.R. 83-19, 1983 WL 31248 (Jan. 1, 1983)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(d) (“To meet the requirements of a listing, you must have a medically determinable impairment(s) that satisfies all of the criteria in the listing.” (emphasis added)). The criteria for the Listings are “‘demanding and stringent.’” Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir. 1994).

         Both Listing 12.04, depressive, bipolar, and related disorders, and 12.06, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, “have three paragraphs, designated A, B, and C.” 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(A)(2). To meet the requirements of either Listing, a plaintiff’s mental disorder “must satisfy the requirements of both paragraphs A and B, or . . . both paragraphs A and C.” Id. “Paragraph A of each listing . . . includes the medical criteria that must be present in [a plaintiff’s] medical evidence.” Id. § 12.00(A)(2)(a). “Paragraph B of each listing . . . provides the functional criteria . . . assess[ed], in conjunction with a rating scale . . ., to evaluate how [a plaintiff’s] mental disorder limits [her] functioning.” Id. § 12.00(A)(2)(b). “Paragraph C . . . provides the criteria . . . use[d] to evaluate ‘serious and persistent mental disorders.’” Id. § 12.00(A)(2)(c). Because Plaintiff does not argue that her mental impairments meet the requirements of both paragraphs A and C, and instead maintains that they meet the requirements of paragraphs A and B, the Court pretermits discussion of paragraph C’s requirements. See Pl.’s Br. 8-12.

         To satisfy Listing 12.04’s paragraph A criteria, a plaintiff must provide medical documentation of a depressive disorder, “characterized by five or more of the following: depressed mood; diminished interest in almost all activities; appetite disturbance with change in weight; sleep disturbance; observable psychomotor agitation or retardation; decreased energy; feelings of guilt or worthlessness; difficulty concentrating or thinking; or thoughts of death or suicide.” 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.04(A)(1). A plaintiff may also meet Listing 12.04’s paragraph A criteria by establishing a bipolar disorder, “characterized by three of more the following: pressured speech; flight of ideas; inflated self-esteem; decreased need for sleep; ...

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