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Ong v. Saul

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

January 13, 2020

Pamela Ong, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Pamela Ong filed this case under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her request for supplemental security income. Ong and the Commissioner moved for summary judgment. Dkts. 15, 16. After considering the pleadings, the record, and the applicable law, the court DENIES Ong's motion, GRANTS the Commissioner's motion, and AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.[1]

         I. Background

         1. Factual and Administrative History

         Ong filed her claim for social security benefits on October 1, 2015 alleging the onset of disability as of that date. Tr. at 11. The agency denied her claims on initial review and reconsideration. The administrative law judge (ALJ) held video hearings on January 18, 2017 and August 3, 2017 at which Ong and a vocational expert, Wallace A. Stanfill, testified. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Ong benefits on September 22, 2017. The Appeals Council denied review on July 31, 2018 and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(b)(2) and 416.1484(b)(2).

         2. Standard of Review

         Federal court review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny Social Security benefits is limited to two inquiries: (1) whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard; and (2) whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Garcia v. Berryhill, 880 F.3d 700, 704 (5th Cir. 2018); Copeland v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 920, 923 (5th Cir. 2014). When reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the court does not reweigh the evidence, try the questions de novo, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Masterson v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 267, 272 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2000)). Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to resolve, not the courts. Id.

         3. Disability Determination Standards

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The ALJ must follow a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         In the first step, the ALJ decides whether the claimant is currently working or “engaged in substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled. In the second step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant's impairment does not have a de minimis impact on her ability to work, she is not disabled. Salmond v. Berryhill, 892 F.3d 812, 817 (5th Cir. 2018). The third step of the sequential analysis requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's severe impairment meets or medically equals one of the listings in the regulation known as Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, the ALJ must determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC). “The RFC is the individual's ability to do physical and mental tasks on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.” Giles v. Astrue, 433 Fed.Appx. 241, 245 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §404.1545). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's RFC permits her to perform her past relevant work. If the answer is no, the ALJ determines at step five whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy. Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1304 (5th Cir. 1987). The claimant bears the burden to prove disability at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Newton, 209 F.3d at 452-53.

         4. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ performed the standard 5-step sequential analysis. The ALJ found that Ong did not engage in substantial gainful activity after her alleged onset date of October 1, 2015. Tr. at 13. The ALJ found that Ong had the severe impairments of “lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, asthma, obesity, edema in her lower extremities, and left carpal tunnel syndrome, ” none of which met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment. Id. at 13-15.

         The ALJ next found that Ong had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, with the following additional limitations:

[C]laimant can stand and/or walk for no more than four hours with normal breaks and she can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. The clamant who is right handed can also occasionally balance, stoop, bend, kneel, crawl, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Moreover, the claimant can occasionally handle, finger, and feel with her left upper extremity. The claimant can also perform occasional bilateral overhead reaching. Additionally, the claimant can have occasional exposure to temperature extremes, damp or dry conditions, gas, fumes, dust, smoke, chemicals, hazards, dangerous equipment or machinery, and unprotected heights, and she can occasionally drive and use foot controls bilaterally. Finally, ...

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