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Stallings v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Victoria Division

October 30, 2019



          Hilda Tagle Senior United States District Judge.

         This is a civil action seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of Social Security benefits. The Court is in receipt of Plaintiff Lisa Lynette Stallings' (“Stallings”) Complaint, Dkt. No. 1; Original Brief and Incorporated Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. No. 11; Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. No. 12 and her Reply Brief, Dkt. No. 18. The Court is in receipt of Defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Commissioner”) Answer to the Complaint, Dkt. No. 6, and Cross Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. No. 15. The Court is also in receipt of the Administrative Transcript/Record, Dkt. No. 7.

         I. Background

         Stallings seeks judicial review of a final administrative decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Stallings filed an application June 19, 2014 with the Social Security Administration applying for Social Security Disability Insurance under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the same act. Tr. 162, 221. Both applications claimed Stallings became disabled on February 11, 2014. Id. She claimed she is disabled due to carpal tunnel, arthritis, depression, anxiety, bursitis, foot pain, hearing loss, knee pain and spine issues. Tr. 357. At the time of her alleged disability occurrence, Stallings was 44 years old with a tenth grade education level. Tr. 233, 358.

         Stallings' application was denied on October 8, 2014 and then again in reconsideration on February 4, 2015. Tr. 221. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gary J. Suttles held a hearing in the case on May 20, 2016. Tr. 100. In a decision dated June 21, 2016 (incorrectly stamped June 21, 2015) the Administrative Law Judge denied Stallings' application, finding she could perform some light jobs in the national economy. Tr. 234-35. After submitting additional evidence, Stallings appealed to the Appeals Council (“AC”) and had her appeal denied on September 25, 2017. Tr. 1-3 The AC found that there was not a reasonable probability that the additional evidence would change the outcome of the decision. Id. Stallings filed this case before this Court and incorporated all documentation into the transcript. Dkt. No. 11 at 3.

         a. Hearing

         At the hearing, the ALJ inquired for an hour and twenty minutes into the nature of Stallings' claims. A Vocational Expert also appeared and testified. Tr. 100. Most of the issues discussed at the hearing were noted in the ALJ's decision but the Court will take note of several points of dispute regarding the ALJ's inquiry and Stalling's submission of evidence:

         i. Outstanding Records

         At the beginning of the hearing the ALJ inquired into the completeness of the medical records. Tr. 102-03. The representative for Stallings informed the ALJ that there were outstanding records. Id. The ALJ gave Stallings two weeks to complete the record. Id.

         ii. Medical commentary

         During the hearing the ALJ opined on the quality of the medical advice Stallings had received:

ALJ: What would contradict the MRI results?
ATTY: No. The MRI results say severe spinal stenosis, Your Honor, and as you know with the listings, severe spinal stenosis __ our argument actually is it meets listing level due to the severity of the__
ALJ: Not the - well, you're totally wrong, Counsel. Everybody has severe stenosis of some degree.
ATTY: Everybody has severe stenosis?
ALJ: And just because you have severe stenosis, that gets you step - that gets you to step two in the evaluation process. You got a severe impairment. Okay. I'll grant it. She's got a severe back impairment. That's about all that gets you. Okay? That doesn't meet your listing at all. I don't know where you get a listing from out of that, but if you look at what the MRI actually says, it doesn't indicate there's any impingement on the nerve root nor is there any herniation. This says minimal degenerative changes. A protrusion.
ATTY: Several, yes, and narrowing of the spine. Yes. I see. I read it, Your Honor.
ALJ: Okay. Wonderful. All I'm saying, ma'am, is with that kind of result if you let anybody touch you without getting a second opinion, I would consider that doctor to be on the verge of malpractice, the one that recommends surgery with this MRI. That's all I'm telling you. You do what you want.

Tr. 120-123.

         b. Late Medical Records

         The ALJ and a representative for Stallings agreed at the hearing on May 20, 2016 to keep the record open for two weeks for Stallings to submit additional medical records. Tr. 102-103. Two weeks after the hearing Stallings' attorneys filed a post hearing memorandum challenging the findings at the hearing. Tr. 311-31. The memorandum did not provide and did not mention the outstanding medical records. Id. The ALJ issued his written decision on June 21, 2016, one month after the hearing. Tr. 218. The additional records were eventually added to Stallings record and considered by the Appeals Council during its review. Tr. 2.

         c. Decision

         In his June 21, 2016 decision the ALJ concluded Stallings was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Tr. 221 In a 15-page decision the ALJ reviewed the five-step process required by statute to render his decision. Tr. 222. The ALJ held that the claimant met the insured status requirements required by the Social Security Act; that Stallings had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 11, 2014; and that Stallings had severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the feet, legs and back, obesity, depression, and anxiety. Tr. 224. The ALJ concluded the impairments of hearing loss and carpal tunnel were not severe under the regulations. Tr. 224. The ALJ held that Stallings did not have a combination of impairments that meets one of the proscribed categories of impairments under “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).” Tr. 224. This holding was supported by a finding that Stallings did not have an inability to ambulate or inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively that would support such categories. Tr. 224-25.

         The ALJ considered each impairment in turn and provided the legal framework which guided his decision. Tr. 224-26. Specifically, the ALJ found “the records do not document any neurological defects, significant musculoskeletal abnormalities, or any serious dysfunctioning of the bodily organs that would preclude a level of work as delineated in this decision.” Tr. 225. In the final step, the ALJ held: “After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), lifting a maximum of 20 pounds and frequently 10 pounds. She can stand and walk 4 to 8 hours each and sit 6 to 8 hours for a full 8-hour day.” Tr. 227. The decision went on to note specific physical abilities the ALJ determined Stallings to be capable of. In support of those conclusions the ALJ outlined the legal framework he employed and how the medical records fit into that framework. Tr. 227-28. “After careful consideration of the evidence, I find that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause alleged symptoms; however the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision.” Tr. 228. The ALJ then listed relevant medical events from the medical record. Tr. 228-32. The ALJ weighed the opinions of examining and treating doctors. Tr. 232. The ALJ gave “great weight” to opinions he thought were consistent with the evidence and “little weight” to those opinions he thought were inconsistent with the medical records. Tr. 230-33 The opinions of doctors Jeanine Kwun (“Kwun”), Patty Rowley (“Rowley”), Susan Thompson (“Thompson”), Arun Jain (“Jain”) and Narvin Curtis (“Curtis”) were given great weight, Tr. 232, while the opinions of Doctor Followwill (“Followwill”) and treating physician Neil Campbell (“Campbell”) were given little weight. Tr. 232-33 Doctor Raul Capitaine's (“Capitaine”) assessment was given moderate weight. Tr. 232-33. The ALJ held that considering the age, education, work experience and functional capacity of Stallings, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. Tr. 234. Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ stated those jobs include mailroom clerk (non-postal), price marker, and electronics worker. Tr. 234. The ALJ denied both claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Tr. 235. The ALJ did not consider the objections raised by Stalling's representative in the post-hearing memorandum on the grounds that they were moot because the objections addressed a vocational expert who did not testify at the hearing. Tr. 221.

         II. Arguments

         Stallings moved for summary judgment arguing she is entitled to Social Security benefits as a matter of law or that the case should be remanded for further consideration. Dkt. Nos. 11, 12. Her motion presents two general issues: 1) the ALJ decision did not comply with the substantial evidence standard or the proper procedural standard and the ALJ dismissed or ignored portions of claimants medical records favorable to a finding of disability and did not compare the medical facts to the listings rendering an opinion so devoid of reference that it did not satisfy the holding of Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d. 466 (5th Cir. 2007). 2) Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(b), the new evidence supplied to the Appeals Council is reviewable by this Court under Fifth Circuit jurisprudence; further, the ALJ's disability determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to develop the record fully before issuing a decision. Dkt. No. 11 at 2.

         The Commissioner made a cross motion for summary judgment. Dkt. No. 15. The Commissioner argues the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence as shown by a decision that made a thorough review of the facts. Id. The Commissioner also argues the ALJ complied with all governing legal authorities and reviewed the whole record before him. Id. at 5. Further, the Commissioner argues the ALJ properly developed the ...

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