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Bradshaw v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Fort Worth Division

December 12, 2019

LISA POUNDS BRADSHAW, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          HAL R. RAY, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Lisa Pounds Bradshaw (“Bradshaw”) filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the denial by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) of her application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and widow's insurance benefits (“WIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”); and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) payments under Title XVI. ECF Nos. 1 and 17. After considering the pleadings, briefs, and the administrative record, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that United States District Judge Mark T. Pittman AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         On March 22, 2016, Bradshaw filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and WIB. See SSA Admin. R. (hereinafter, “Tr.”) 15, ECF No. 14-1. She also filed an application for SSI on July 8, 2015. Id. In all applications, Bradshaw alleged that her disability began on June 3, 2015. Id. The Commissioner initially denied her claim on January 29, 2016 and denied it again on reconsideration on March 9, 2016. Id. Bradshaw requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Kevin Batik on May 24, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas, with Bradshaw and her attorney present. Id. The ALJ issued his decision on November 15, 2017, finding that Bradshaw was not disabled. Tr. 12, 28.

         Specifically, the ALJ employed the statutory five-step analysis and established during step one that Bradshaw had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 3, 2015, the alleged onset date. Tr. 18. At step two, he determined that Bradshaw's combined physical impairments constituted a severe impairment, comprised of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, osteoarthritis, bursitis of the hips, heel spur, obstructive sleep apnea, and asthma. Id. The ALJ further considered, inter alia, the four areas of mental functioning also known as the “paragraph B” criteria and found that Bradshaw's mental impairment was not severe because it caused no more than mild limitation in any of the functional areas. Tr. 19. At step three, the ALJ found that Bradshaw's impairments did not meet or equal in combination one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404(p). Tr. 20. At step four, the ALJ ruled that Bradshaw had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Tr. 20. The ALJ further found that Bradshaw can have no more than occasional exposure to dust, fumes, odors, and pulmonary irritants; can frequently handle, finger, and reach with the bilateral upper extremities; and cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or use foot controls. Id. Additionally, the ALJ held that Bradshaw is unable to perform any past relevant work as a caregiver, home attendant, billing clerk, or assembler. Tr. 26. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Bradshaw's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Bradshaw could perform. Tr. 27.

         The Appeals Council denied review on October 1, 2018. Tr. 1. Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision and is properly before the Court for review. Higginbotham v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 332, 334 (5th Cir. 2005) (“[T]he Commissioner's ‘final decision' includes the Appeals Council's denial of [a claimant's] request for review.”).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         According to her pleadings, testimony at the administrative hearing, and the administrative record, Bradshaw was born on July 29, 1966 and has at least a high school education. Tr. 26. Her employment history includes work as a caregiver, home attendant, billing clerk, and assembler. Id. She asserts that a combination of impairments renders her disabled under the SSA. Tr. 247.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 404 et seq., of the SSA governs the disability insurance program in addition to numerous regulations concerning disability insurance. See 20 C.F.R. § 404. The SSA defines a disability as a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months” that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); McQueen v. Apfel, 168 F.3d 152, 154 (5th Cir. 1999).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to disability benefits, the Commissioner employs a sequential five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the claimant must not be presently working at any substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial gainful activity” means work activity involving the use of significant physical or mental abilities for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 271 n.2 (5th Cir. 2002). Second, the claimant must have an impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); see Stone v. Heckler, 752 F.2d 1099, 1100-03 (5th Cir. 1985). Third, disability exists if the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments (“Listing”), 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, if the claimant's medical status alone does not constitute a disability, the impairment or impairments must prevent the claimant from returning to her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any work, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Crowley v. Apfel, 197 F.3d 197, 197-98 (5th Cir. 1999). “The claimant bears the burden of showing that [she] is disabled through the first four steps of the analysis; on the fifth, the Commissioner must show that there is other substantial work in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” Audler v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 446, 448 (5th Cir. 2007). Before proceeding to steps four and five, the Commissioner must assess a claimant's RFC-“the most [a claimant] can still do despite [his] limitation.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); Perez v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 457, 461 (5th Cir. 2005).

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the decision. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 564 (5th Cir. 1995); Hollis v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 1378, 1382 (5th Cir. 1988). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a responsible mind might accept to support a conclusion.” Boyd v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 698, 704 (5th Cir. 2001). “It is more than a mere scintilla and less than a preponderance.” Id. “A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings support the decision.” Id. The Court may neither reweigh the evidence in the record nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's, but it will carefully scrutinize the record to determine if evidence is present. Harris v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 413, 417 (5th Cir. 2000); Hollis, 837 F.2d at 1383. “Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner and not the courts to resolve.” Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Bradshaw raises two issues on appeal. She claims that (1) the ALJ failed to evaluate the medical opinion evidence consistent with the applicable regulations, agency policy, and Fifth Circuit precedent; and (2) the ALJ erred in his credibility assessment by failing to take into consideration Bradshaw's ...


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