Williams v. Commissioner, SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER. The Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED and this social security action is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Signed by Magistrate Judge K. Nicole Mitchell on 09/28/16. (mll, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
ROBBIE LARANCE WILLIAMS
CIVIL ACTION NO. 6:14cv756
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On September 12, 2014, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit by filing a complaint seeking
judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision denying his application for Social Security
benefits. The matter was transferred to the undersigned with the consent of the parties pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 636. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s final decision is
AFFIRMED and the above-styled lawsuit be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and an application for
Supplemental Security Income on December 15, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of
September 20, 2000.
The applications were denied on March 28, 2012, and again on
reconsideration on June 4, 2012. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). An ALJ conducted a video hearing on April 30, 2013, and issued a decision
on June 26, 2013, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of
the Social Security Act (“the Act”) through December 31, 2005, the date last insured, but has
been disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) beginning on December 15, 2011. Plaintiff submitted
a request for review of the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals Council denied the request for review
on August 27, 2014. As a result, the ALJ’s decision became that of the Commissioner. Plaintiff
filed this lawsuit on September 12, 2014, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s
Title II of the Act provides for federal disability insurance benefits. 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. 1983); Rivers v. Schweiker, 684 F.2d 1144,
1146, n. 2 (5th Cir. 1982); Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1105 (5th Cir. 1980).
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) (quoting 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) (citing 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 (quoting 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 at 360 (citing Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 1990)); Anthony,
954 F.2d at 295 (citing 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
“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) (citing Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 162 (5th Cir.
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. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28
L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). However, the Court must do more than “rubber stamp” the Administrative
Law Judge’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 at 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); 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) and 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) and 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 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 (citing
Harrell, 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
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). 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, a
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).
The ALJ made the following findings in his June 26, 2013 decision:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through
December 31, 2005.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset
date (20 CFR § 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
3. Prior to December 31, 2005, the claimant’s date last insured for eligibility for Title II
benefits, there is no evidence of medical signs or laboratory findings to substantiate
the existence of a medically determinable impairment (20 CFR § 404.1520(c) and
4. Beginning on December 15, 2011, the medical record supports a finding that the
claimant has the severe impairments of hypertension, diabetes mellitus, neuropathy,
lumbar disc disease, trouble gripping with right hand, and knot of right shoulder. (20
CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
5. Since December 15, 2011, the claimant has not had an impairment or combination of
impairments that meet or medically equals the severity of 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).
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that since
December 15, 2011, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform
sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967. The claimant can lift
and carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. He can stand
and walk for 2 hours during an 8-hour workday. The claimant can sit for 6 hours of
an 8-hour workday. The claimant should avoid climbing, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
The claimant should not crawl. He should avoid being exposed to vibrations, and
hazardous machines. The claimant can perform handling and fingering with his right
hand at the occasional level.
7. Since December 15, 2011, the claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant
work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
8. The claimant was an individual closely approaching advanced age on December 15,
2011, the established disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
9. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in
English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
10. The claimant does not have work skills that are transferable to other occupations
within the residual functional capacity defined above (20 CFR 404.1568 and
11. Since December 15, 2011, considering the claimant’s age, education, work
experience and residual functional capacity, there are no 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).
12. The claimant was not disabled prior to December 15, 2011 (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and
416.920(c) but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through
the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
Plaintiff testified at his hearing before the ALJ on April 30, 2013. Plaintiff testified that
he is married and does not have any minor children. He drives two or three days per week and,
at that time, had been using a walker for approximately one year. Plaintiff finished high school
and worked in the military. More recently, he worked at Tyler Pipe and in a steel mill.
Plaintiff testified that he has not worked since 2000 because he injured his back and he
has a hand syndrome in his right hand. Plaintiff is right-handed and three of his fingers will not
fold together. Plaintiff stated that he was working with the VA to get approval for back surgery.
He testified that he has diabetes and does not have feeling in his feet. Plaintiff stated that he had
difficulty obtaining medical care because he was incarcerated for ten years. He stated that he
went to prison in April 2001 and he was released in November 2011. Plaintiff testified that he
now sees a psychiatrist at the VA for depression and anxiety and he sees someone at the VA for
DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS
In his brief, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, does not identify any specific issues for review.
Plaintiff asserts that he is unable to work because of an injury. Plaintiff states that he has
problems with a nerve condition in both hands, an injury to his left arm, his back, his left knee
and depression and anxiety.
Plaintiff’s brief does not dispute that his last date insured for eligibility for disability
benefits is December 31, 2005. The ALJ concluded that there were no objective medical signs or
laboratory findings in the record to substantiate a medically determinable impairment prior to
December 31, 2005.
Plaintiff was referred to NeuroCare Network on December 5, 2000
following a work related injury that occurred on September 20, 2000. Plaintiff reported back and
leg pain with the right worse than the left. Plaintiff’s neurological examination showed normal
sensory exam to pinprick and light touch in bilateral lower extremities and his motor exam
showed 5/5 strength in the bilateral lower extremities. Plaintiff had negative straight leg raises,
Thomas test, and Faber’s on the right. Faber’s test was positive on the left. Plaintiff expressed
some pain on internal and external rotation of the hips. Dr. Michaels reviewed an MRI from
November 2, 2000 that demonstrated some mild canal stenosis and bilateral foraminal stenosis at
L4-5 secondary to broad-based disc protrusion. On January 19, 2001, Plaintiff reported a 50%
reduction in pain following lumbar epidural steroid injections. Plaintiff reported worsened pain
on February 16, 2001 and Dr. Michaels scheduled Plaintiff for bilateral L3–4, 4–5, L5–S1 facet
Plaintiff was seen by Dr. William Adams on February 14, 2001 for an evaluation of right
hand ischemia. Dr. Adams scheduled Plaintiff for an arteriogram and determined that Plaintiff
had ulnar artery occlusion and emboli to his right hand, also referred to as hypo-thenar hammer
syndrome. On March 15, 2001, Dr. Adams performed a proper digital sympathectomy of the
right hand and excision of ulnar artery of the right hand. Six days later, Plaintiff’s incisions were
healing well and he had no complaints. There are no other medical records submitted for the
time period between March 2001 and December 31, 2005. Plaintiff does not identify any error in
the ALJ’s finding concerning his lack of a medically determinable impairment prior to December
The ALJ determined, however, for purposes of supplemental security income benefits
that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of hypertension, diabetes mellitus, neuropathy, lumbar
disc disease, trouble gripping with right hand, and knot of the right shoulder beginning on
December 15, 2011. Plaintiff does not challenge that finding in his brief. The ALJ’s decision
concludes that there are no jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that
Plaintiff could perform since December 15, 2011. The ALJ expressly held that, pursuant to 20
CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g), Plaintiff became disabled for purposes of supplemental
security income benefits on December 15, 2011 and has continued to be disabled through the
date of the decision.
Plaintiff’s brief does not identify any error in the ALJ’s finding that his disability started
on December 15, 2011, shortly after he was released from prison, for purposes of his
supplemental security income application. While incarcerated, Plaintiff received medical care
from Correctional Managed Care. The medical evidence only contains records from 2010 and
2011 from Correctional Managed Care.
On April 26, 2010, Plaintiff complained of
hypertension, diabetes and hyperlipidemia. His blood pressure was 135/98. The clinic note
states that Plaintiff’s upper extremities were normal and his feet were within normal limits.
There were no significant findings. On August 24, 2010, Plaintiff complained of pain and
numbness in his left hand. On examination, Plaintiff had no edema or deformity in the hand and
he had good range of motion in all digits. A cervical spine examination on September 14, 2010
showed normal alignment of the cervical vertebrae, no evidence of fracture and well preserved
intervertebral disc spaces. Plaintiff was seen again for his spine on February 5, 2011 and he had
a spine X-Ray. Plaintiff’s blood pressure at that visit was 167/93. An examination on March 9,
2011 revealed negative bilateral straight leg raises and deep tendon reflexes of 1+/4+ position
and alignment bilaterally. A large lipomatous mass was noted on Plaintiff’s right arm. A clinic
note on March 25, 2011 states that Plaintiff’s hypertension and diabetes were not well controlled.
After his release from prison, Plaintiff received care at Total Health Care Center on
December 5, 2011. At that visit, Plaintiff’s blood pressure was 155/98 and he was diagnosed
with coronary artery disease, essential hypertension, edema, mixed hyperlipoprotelnemia, Type 2
diabetes mellitus, polyneuropathy and chronic pain syndrome. On that date, the clinic note states
that Plaintiff’s diabetes was not well controlled. Plaintiff received treatment and, at a subsequent
visit on December 19, 2011, the clinic note states that Plaintiff’s diabetes was controlled and his
blood pressure was down to 125/82.
The remainder of the medical records post-date the disability date of December 15, 2011
determined by the ALJ. The records submitted by Plaintiff after his hearing and in this lawsuit
also post-date the December 15, 2011 disability date and do not relate to whether Plaintiff was
disabled prior to that date. Plaintiff’s brief does not seem to account for the fact that the ALJ
did find him to be disabled as of December 15, 2011. The burden of proof is on Plaintiff to
establish that he had a severe impairment prior to that date. Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d at
632–33. Here, Plaintiff has not proven and the medical records do not show a severe impairment
prior to December 15, 2011. To the extent Plaintiff asserts that he was disabled prior to that
date—which is not made clear in his brief—the objective medical evidence does not support that
In this case, the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. The Commissioner’s decision should be affirmed and the complaint should
be dismissed. It is therefore
ORDERED that the Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED and this social
security action is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
So ORDERED and SIGNED this
Sep 28, 2016
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