Burton v. Astrue, CIVIL ACTION NO. H-09-710

CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas
Writing for the CourtJohn R. Froeschner
PartiesMAMIE BURTON, Plaintiff, v. MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. H-09-710
Decision Date19 August 2011

MAMIE BURTON, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL
SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-09-710

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS HOUSTON DIVISION

Dated: August 19, 2011


OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court, upon the consent of the parties, is Plaintiff Mamie Burton's action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et. seq., and for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et. seq. The parties filed cross Motions for Summary Judgment (Document Entry ("Dkt.") Nos. 16, 17). Plaintiff filed a response to Defendant's Motion. (Dkt. No. 18). After considering the cross motions, the response, the administrative record, and the applicable law, this Court, for the reasons set forth below, concludes that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 16) should be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 17) should be GRANTED, and that this action should be dismissed.

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I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Mamie Burton ("Burton") brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and for supplemental security income ("SSI"). First, Burton maintains that substantial evidence does not support the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision because he failed to properly consider evidence in the record that her mental impairment (depression) was a medically determinable impairment that resulted from the limiting effects of her physical impairments. (Dkt. No. 16 at 6). Burton proceeds to argue that, because her mental impairment "is actually a medically determinable impairment, the ALJ should have performed and documented the analysis required by [20 C.F.R. §§] 404.1520a and 416.920a(e)(2)." (Dkt. No. 16 at 8). On this basis, Burton maintains that the administrative decision should be remanded to "allow the ALJ to properly evaluate the limiting effects of [her] mental impairment." (Dkt. No. 16 at 8). Second, Burton contends that the ALJ erred by failing to recognize all of the limitations that resulted from her knee impairment in determining her residual function capacity. (Dkt. No. 16 at 8-9). Thus, on this ground as well, Burton moves the Court for an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits, or in the alternative, an order remanding her claim for further proceedings. The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, that it comports with applicable law, and that it should therefore be affirmed.

II. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff Mamie Burton submitted an application for DIB and SSI benefits with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on July 19, 2006, claiming that she had been disabled and unable

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to work since July 12, 2005, principally as a result of a left knee injury and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 117).1 Burton has her high school equivalent education and has past relevant work as a patient caregiver at a group home. (Tr. 118; 122). Burton's DIB and SSI claims were denied upon initial review and also upon reconsideration. (Tr. 12, 46-51).

Burton then requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 52). A hearing was held via video-teleconference on February 11, 2008, at which time the ALJ heard testimony from Burton. (Tr. 21-37; 56-66). Burton was represented by counsel at the hearing. (Tr. 23). As reflected in his written decision dated February 29, 2008, the ALJ, after considering the entire record, made the following determinations concerning Burton:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 12, 2005, the alleged onset date (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the left knee, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, hypertension, and atypical chest pain (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 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).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she is limited to occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling.

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6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on July 31, 1961 and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR §§ 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR §§ 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because the Medical-Vocational Rules support a finding that the claimant is "not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR §§ 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.960(c) and 416.966).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 12, 2005 through the date of this decision (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr.12-20). Thus, on February 29, 2008, the ALJ denied Burton's application for benefits. (Tr. 20). Burton, through counsel, appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council of the SSA's Office of Hearings and Appeals. (Tr. 8). On January 5, 200[9],2 after considering Burton's contentions in light of the applicable regulations and evidence, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Burton's request for review. (Tr. 1-5). The decision of the ALJ thereby became the final decision of the Commissioner, and it is from this final decision that the appeal (Dkt. No. 1) has been taken pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

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The evidence is set forth in the transcript, pages 1 through 510. (Dkt. No. 6). There is no dispute as to the facts contained therein.

III. STATUTORY BASES FOR BENEFITS

Under the Social Security Act, DIB and SSI are separate and distinct programs. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et. seq., 1381 et. seq. Nevertheless, applicants seeking benefits under either statutory provision must prove "disability" within the meaning of the Act, which defines disability in virtually identical language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3), 1382(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). Under both provisions, disability is defined 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 12 months. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(3)(A). Moreover, the law and regulations governing the determination of disability are the same for both DIB and SSI. See Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994).

IV. STANDARD FOR REVIEW OF ADMINISTRATIVE DETERMINATIONS

A federal court reviews the Commissioner's denial of benefits only to ascertain whether (1) the final decision is supported by substantial evidence and (2) the Commissioner used the proper legal standards to evaluate the evidence. Brown v. Apfel, 192 F.3d 472, 473 (5th Cir. 1999); see also, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).3 "Substantial evidence," as defined in the Act, means "such

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relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and less than a preponderance." Ripley v. Chater, 67 F.3d 552, 555 (5th Cir. 1995). If the Commissioner's findings are adjudged to be supported by substantial evidence, then such findings are conclusive and must be affirmed. Id. A finding of no substantial evidence is appropriate only if no credible evidentiary choices or medical findings exist to support the decision. Johnson v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 340, 343-44 (5th Cir. 1988). A court does not re-weigh the evidence, try the issues de novoor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's, even if the evidence weighs against the Commissioner's decision. Id. Conflicts in the evidence are for the Commissioner, not the Court, to resolve. Brown, 192 F.3d at 496.

V. BURDEN OF PROOF

An individual claiming entitlement to disability...

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