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Pearce v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

October 28, 2019




         To the Honorable United States District Judge Xavier Rodriguez

         This Report and Recommendation concerns Plaintiff Anthony A. Pearce's request for judicial review of the administrative denial of his application for disability-insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This action was assigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 1(h) of Appendix C to the Local Rules, and the docket management order entered on October 8, 2019[2] in the San Antonio Division of the Western District of Texas. The Court has jurisdiction to review a final decision of the Social Security Administration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Authority to enter this recommendation stems from 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).

         After considering Pearce's Brief, Dkt. No. 19, the Brief in Support of the Commissioner's Decision, Dkt. No. 20, the transcript of the administrative proceedings (“Tr.”), Dkt. No. 16, the other pleadings on file, the applicable authorities and regulatory provisions, and the entire record in this matter, I conclude that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and the administrative proceedings involved no reversible legal error. The Commissioner's decision should therefore be AFFIRMED.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Pearce filed his application for disability-insurance benefits on October 2, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of July 9, 2015. See Tr. 182-83.[3] Pearce was 45 years old on the date he alleges he became disabled and 48 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision. Accordingly, Pearce is considered a “younger person” at all times pertinent to his claim. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). Pearce has a high school education and has completed some college coursework. See Tr. 55. Pearce alleged the following impairments render him disabled: Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma, Subarachnoid Hemorrhage (Brain Bleed), neck/shoulder/back injury, difficulty in social situations, depression/anxiety, nausea/vomiting, chronic pain, trouble speaking/thinking, high blood pressure, and thyroid disorder. See Id. 76. Pearce's claim was initially denied on May 5, 2016, id. 75-90, and once again on October 24, 2016 after he requested reconsideration, id. 91-108. Following the denial of his claim, Pearce requested and received an administrative hearing. Id. 125-69; 49-74. Pearce and his attorney attended the hearing on October 19, 2017, at which Pearce and vocational expert Judith Harper testified. Id. 26-46.

         The ALJ denied Pearce's claim for benefits. Id. 22-43. In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ found that Pearce met the insured-status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017 and, accordingly, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential analysis required by the regulations. Id. 24. At step one of the analysis, the ALJ found that Pearce had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date through his date of last insured. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Pearce had the following severe impairments: obesity; lumbar degenerative disc disease; cervical degenerative disc disease left shoulder sprain; migraine headaches; neurocognitive disorder; major depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. Id. 24-26. The ALJ, however, found that Pearce's other impairments of hypertension, thyroid disorder, and B-Cell lymphoma were not severe. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Pearce's impairments meet or medically equal the impairments of one of the listed impairments in the applicable Social Security regulations. Id. 26-28.

         Before reaching step four of the analysis, the ALJ found that Pearce retains the physical capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), including lifting only 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently with the ability to stand and/or walk for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour work day. The ALJ also imposed the following additional physical limitations:

[Pearce] is limited to occasionally climbing ramps and/or stairs; and occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. [Pearce] is limited to occasional overhead reaching with the non-dominant left arm. [Pearce] should avoid working at unprotected heights, climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds and working in close proximity to dangerous machinery or moving mechanical parts of equipment. [Pearce] should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, excessive noise, excessive vibration, and fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas.

Id. 28. With respect to his mental residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that:

[Pearce] can understand and follow simple instructions and directions; perform simple tasks with or without supervision; maintain attention/concentration for simple tasks; and regularly attend to a routine and maintain a schedule. [Pearce] is limited to occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors, and no interaction wit the public. Work should be limited to simple tasks involving only simple, work-related decisions, with few, if any work place changes.


         In making this residual-functional-capacity assessment, the ALJ afforded (1) “little weight” to the opinion of neuropsychological consultant Dr. Sean G. Connolly; (2) “partial weight” to the opinion of consultative psychologist Dr. Kristine Gerwell; and (3) “partial” weight to the opinions of the state agency medical consultants. See Id. 40-41.

         At step four, after considering this residual functional capacity and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Pearce wasn't able to perform any past relevant work as a car salesman, truck driver, or a sales manager. Id. 41. At step five, however, the ALJ determined that considering Pearce's age, educational factors, prior work experience, and residual functional capacity, as well as the testimony of the vocational expert, Pearce could perform the following jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy: lens inserter (Dictionary of Occupational Titles “DOT” # 713.687-026); polisher, eyeglass frames (DOT # 713.684-038); and final assembler (DOT # 713.687-018)-positions that the DOT classifies as sedentary and unskilled. Id. 42. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Pearce was not disabled for purposes of the Act, and therefore was not entitled to receive benefits. Id.

         Pearce subsequently requested review of the ALJ's finding, which the Appeals Council denied. Id. 8-17. Accordingly, on October 29, 2018, after exhausting all available administrative remedies, Pearce sought judicial review of the administrative determination. Dkt. No. 1.

         II. Legal Standards

         Standard of Review. To review the denial of benefits, a court determines whether the Commissioner's decision applied the proper legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence. Martinez v. Chater, 64 F.3d 172, 173 (5th Cir. 1995); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021-22 (5th Cir. 1990) (quoting Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983)).

         A reviewing court will “weigh four elements of proof when determining whether there is substantial evidence of disability: (1) objective medical facts; (2) diagnoses and opinions of treating and examining physicians; (3) the claimant's subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) [the claimant's] age, education, and work history.” Martinez, 64 F.3d at 174. “‘[N]o substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a ‘conspicuous absence of credible choices' ...

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