Brown v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., CIVIL ACTION NO. 6:12CV804

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District Texas
Writing for the CourtK. NICOLE MITCHELL
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 6:12CV804
Decision Date24 March 2014




So ORDERED and SIGNED: March 24, 2014


On October 25, 2012, Plaintiff initiated this civil action pursuant to the Social Security Act (The Act), Section 205(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application for Social Security benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the case was assigned to the undersigned for disposition.


Born in 1956, Plaintiff was 54 years old at the time of her application and 55 on the date of the ALJ's decision. See Transcript ("Tr.") at 43 (Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") decision). She has a high school diploma, and past relevant work as a licensed vocational nurse . See Tr. at 166, 171.

On January 8, 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. See Tr. at 33. In her application, she alleged disability beginning July 13, 2008. Id. Records show that Brown has been treated for back, shoulder, and mental impairments. In July 2008, Plaintiff injured her right shoulder in a work-related accident. See Tr. at 322. She has undergone surgery for her shoulder and further surgery has been recommended. She struggles with pain management of her orthopedic injuries. Further, she has diagnosed mental issues.

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Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff sought review of the denial. An administrative hearing was conducted before the ALJ on May 10, 2011. Id. at 50 (transcript of administrative hearing). Plaintiff appeared and testified, without counsel. Id. A vocational expert, Russell Bowden, appeared and testified. Id. Medical expert Dr. Howard McClure, Jr. was not present at the hearing, did not listen to any testimony, but testified at the end of the hearing through a telephone call.

The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 18, 2011. See Tr. at 30-49. Therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Tr. at 43.

At the request of Plaintiff, the Appeals Council (AC) the ALJ's decision in conjunction with the entire record. Plaintiff, now having retained counsel, submitted additional evidence for Appeals Council to review. On September 13, 2012, the AC denied her request. See Tr. at 1-5.

Accordingly, the AC denied Plaintiff's application. See Tr. at. 1-5. Therefore, the AC's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner erred by not providing advance notice that the medical expert would testify by telephone, and that the residual functional capacity (RFC) findings in the ALJ's written decision are unsupported by substantial evidence.


Title II of the Act provides for disability insurance for workers who are disabled. Title XVI of the Act provides for supplemental security income for the disabled. The relevant law and regulations governing the determination of disability under a claim for disability insurance benefits are identical to those governing the determination under a claim for supplemental security income. See Davis v. Heckler, 759 F.2d 432, 435, n.1 (5th Cir. 1985); Rivers v. Schweiker, 684 F.2d 1144, 1146, n. 2 (5th Cir. 1982); Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 11055th (5th Cir. 1980).

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Judicial review of the denial of disability benefits under section 205(g) of the Act, 42, U.S.C. § 405(g), is limited to "determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the proper legal standards were used in evaluating the evidence." Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 435 (5th Cir. 1994); Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1021 (5th Cir. 1990); Muse v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 785, 789 (5th Cir. 1991) (per curiam). A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only where there is a conspicuous absence of credible choices or no contrary medical evidence. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988); Hames v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 162, 164 (5th Cir. 1983). Accordingly, the Court "may not reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [the Court's] judgment for the [Commissioner]'s, even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s decision." Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435; Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988); see Spellman v. Shalala, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993); Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992); Cook v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 391, 392 (5th Cir. 1985). Rather, conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner to decide. Spellman, 1 F.3d 357, 360 (5th Cir. 1993); Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990); Anthony, 954 F.2d 289, 295 (5th Cir. 1992); Patton v. Schweiker, 697 F.2d 590, 592 (5th Cir. 1983). A decision on the ultimate issue of whether a claimant is disabled, as defined in the Act, rests with the Commissioner. Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 455-56 (5th Cir. 2000); Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-5p.

"Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance - that is, enough that a reasonable mind would judge it sufficient to support the decision." Pena v. Astrue, 271 Fed.Appx. 382, 383 (5th Cir.2003); Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir.1994). Substantial evidence includes four factors: (1) objective medical facts or clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) subjective evidence of pain and disability; and (4) the plaintiff's age, education, and work history. Fraga v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1296, 1302 n.4 (5th Cir. 1987). If supported by substantial evidence, the decision of the Commissioner is conclusive and must be affirmed.

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Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The Court must do more, however, than "rubber stamp" the ALJ's decision; the Court must "scrutinize the record and take into account whatever fairly detracts from the substantiality of evidence supporting the [Commissioner]'s findings." Cook, 750 F.2d 391, 393 (5th Cir. 1985). The Court may remand for additional evidence if substantial evidence is lacking or "upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding." 42. U.S.C. § 405(g) (2000); Latham v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 482, 483 (5th Cir. 1994).

A claimant for disability has the burden of proving a disability. Wren v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 123, 125 (5th Cir. 1991). The Act defines "disability" as an "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 can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A "physical or mental impairment" is an anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormality which is demonstrable by acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner must utilize a five-step, sequential process. Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. A finding of "disabled" or "not disabled" at any step of the sequential process ends the inquiry. Id.; see Bowling, 36 F.3d at 435; see also Harrel, 862 F.2d at 475). Under the five-step sequential analysis, the Commissioner must determine at Step One whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. At Step Two, the Commissioner must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments are severe. At Step Three, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix I. Prior to moving to Step Four, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), or the most that the claimant can do given his impairments, both severe and non-severe. Then, at Step Four, the Commissioner must

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determine whether the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work. Finally, at Step Five, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant can perform other work available in the local or national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)-(f), 416.920(b)-(f).

An affirmative answer at Step One or a negative answer at Steps Two, Four, or Five results in a finding of "not disabled." See Villa, 895 F.2d at 1022. An affirmative answer at Step Three, or an affirmative answer at Steps Four and Five, creates a presumption of disability. Id. To obtain Title II disability benefits, Plaintiff must show that he was disabled on or before the last day of his insured status. Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 411 (5th Cir.1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 912, 102 S. Ct. 1263, 71 L. Ed. 2d 452 (1982). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps, but shifts to the Commissioner at Step Five if the claimant shows that he cannot perform his past relevant work. Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 632-33 (5th Cir. 1989) (per curiam).


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