Hilton v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: Plaintiff Bradley Felix Hilton ("Plaintiff") brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") final decision denying his claims for a period of dis ability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act pursuant to Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g). The final decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED. (see order) (Ordered by Magistrate Judge Paul D Stickney on 5/1/2017) (mcrd)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
BRADLEY FELIX HILTON,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
Plaintiff Bradley Felix Hilton (“Plaintiff”) brings this action for judicial review of the
Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) final decision denying his claims for a period
of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act pursuant to
Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g). For the following reasons, the final decision of the
Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED.
Plaintiff alleges that he is disabled due to a variety of ailments including problems with his
memory and concentration, insomnia, sleep apnea, bipolar disorder, depression, pain in his neck,
shoulder, and back, and chronic fatigue. Tr. 63-64, ECF No. 12-3. After his application was denied
initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was held on January 19, 2015 in Dallas, Texas before
administrative law judge Stanley M. Schwartz (the “ALJ”) pursuant to Plaintiff’s request. Tr. 53,
ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff was born on January 17, 1967, and at the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was
49 years old. Tr. 57, ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff has two college degrees. Tr. 58, ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff
has worked in the past as respiratory therapist. Tr. 58, ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since October 4, 2014. Tr. 35, ECF No. 12-3.
The ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff has not been under a disability as defined
in the Social Security Act from the alleged onset date of October 4, 2014 through the date of his
decision on February 24, 2016. Tr. 45-46, ECF No. 12-3. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s bipolar
disorder was a severe impairment. Tr. 35, ECF No. 12-3. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff had
the following non-severe impairments: arthropathies, Hepatitis C, obesity, and pain in his lower
back, neck, shoulders, and joints. Tr. 36, ECF No. 12-3. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one
of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 38, ECF No. 12-3.
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), but with the following
limitations: (1) occasionally lift or carry 20 pounds; (2) frequently lift or carry 10 pounds; (3) walk
or stand for six hours in an eight-hour work day; (4) sit for two hours in an eight-hour work day; (5)
no overhead bilateral reaching; (6) simple one to two step tasks for up to two hours at a time; (7) no
contact with the general public; (8) no team work; and (9) incidental or occasional contact with
supervisors. Tr. 40, ECF No. 12-3. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the
tasks of the following occupations: office cleaner, photocopy machine operator, and a price tagger.
Tr. 45, ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council, and on May 20,
2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request. Tr. 1, ECF No. 12-3. Plaintiff subsequently
filed this action in the district court on July 18, 2016. Compl., ECF No. 1.
A claimant must prove that she is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act to be
entitled to social security benefits. Leggett v. Chater, 67 F.3d 558, 563-64 (5th Cir. 1995); Abshire
v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 638, 640 (5th Cir. 1988). The definition of disability under the Act is “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A);
Anthony v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 289, 292 (5th Cir. 1992).
The Commissioner utilizes a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is
disabled. Those steps are that:
an individual who is working and engaging in substantial
gainful activity will not be found disabled regardless of
an individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will
not be found to be disabled;
an individual who meets or equals a listed impairment in
Appendix 1 of the regulations will be considered disabled
without consideration of vocational factors;
if an individual is capable of performing the work the
individual has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled”
will be made; and
if an individual’s impairment precludes the individual from
performing the work the individual has done in the past, other
factors including age, education, past work experience, and
residual functional capacity must be considered to determine
if other work can be performed.
Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994) (citing Villa v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 1019, 1022
(5th Cir. 1990); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f)). The burden of proof lies with the claimant to prove
disability under the first four steps of the five-step inquiry. Leggett, 67 F.3d at 564. The burden of
proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five of the inquiry to prove that other work, aside from the
claimant’s past work, can be performed by the claimant. Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 435 (5th
Cir. 1994) (citing Anderson v. Sullivan, 887 F.2d 630, 632-33 (5th Cir. 1989)).
The Commissioner’s determination is afforded great deference. Leggett, 67 F.3d at 564.
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s findings is limited to whether the decision to deny benefits
is supported by substantial evidence and to whether the proper legal standards were utilized.
Greenspan, 38 F.3d at 236 (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3)). An “ALJ’s decision is not
subject to reversal, even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported the
opposite conclusion, so long as substantial evidence supports the conclusion that was reached by the
ALJ.” Corpany v. Colvin, No. 4:12-CV-878-A, 2014 WL 1255316, at *9 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 26, 2014)
(citing Dollins v. Astrue, No. 4:08-CV-503-A, 2009 WL 1542466, at *5 (N.D. Tex. June 2, 2009)).
Substantial evidence is defined as “that which is relevant and sufficient for a reasonable mind to
accept as adequate to support a conclusion; it must be more than a scintilla, but it need not be a
preponderance.” Leggett, 67 F.3d at 564. The reviewing court does “not reweigh the evidence, try
the issues de novo, or substitute” its own judgment, but rather scrutinizes the record as a whole to
determine whether substantial evidence is present. Greenspan, 38 F.3d at 236.
“Absent an error that affects the substantial rights of a party, administrative proceedings do
not require ‘procedural perfection.’” Wilder v. Colvin, No. 3:13-CV-3014-P, 2014 WL 2931884, at
*5 (N.D. Tex. June 30, 2014) (quoting Taylor v. Astrue, 706 F.3d 600, 603 (5th Cir. 2012)). “The
ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence in the record nor must the ALJ follow
formalistic rules of articulation.” Hunt v. Astrue, No. 4:12-CV-44-Y, 2013 WL 2392880, at *7 (N.D.
Tex. June 3, 2013) (citing Castillo v. Barnhart, 151 F. App’x 334, 335 (5th Cir. 2005)); see also
Falco v. Shalala, 27 F.3d 160, 164 (5th Cir. 1994) (“That [the ALJ] did not follow formalistic rules
in her articulation compromises no aspect of fairness or accuracy that her process is designed to
ensure.”). “Procedural errors affect the substantial rights of a claimant only when they ‘cast into
doubt the existence of substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s decision.’” Wilder, 2014 WL
2931884, at *5 (quoting Morris v. Bowen, 864 F.2d 333, 335 (5th Cir. 1988)). “Remand is required
only when there is a realistic possibility that the ALJ would have reached a different conclusion
absent the procedural error.” Id. (citing January v. Astrue, 400 F. App’x 929, 933 (5th Cir. 2010)).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give the proper weight to the opinion of his treating
psychiatrist. Pl.’s Br. 7, ECF No. 16. Plaintiff’s treating psychologist Dr. Rachel Russo opined on
October 30, 2015 that Plaintiff had marked limitations in his ability to understand, remember, and
carry out short and simple instructions, and that Plaintiff was extremely limited in his ability to
understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions. Tr. 1120-21, ECF No. 12-18. In addition,
Dr. Russo determined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in his ability to interact appropriately
with the public, supervisors, and co-workers, and in his ability to respond appropriately to work
pressures in a usual work settings and changes in a routine work setting. Tr. 1121, ECF No. 12-18.
Dr. Russo explained that Plaintiff’s bipolar disorder has a significant impact on Plaintiff’s
concentration and ability to complete tasks, and that although Plaintiff is under treatment for his
bipolar disorder, significant symptoms remain. Tr. 1120-21, ECF No. 12-18. The ALJ stated that
although he gave serious considerations to Dr. Russo’s opinion, he determined that the opinion is
not entitled to controlling weight. Tr. 42, ECF No. 12-3. The ALJ also stated that he gave some
weight to the opinions of non-examining state agency physicians who concluded that Plaintiff does
not have work place limitations. Tr. 41, ECF No. 12-3. The Commissioner does not argue in her
response that there is controverting evidence from a treating physician, but contends that the ALJ
adequately considered the 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) (“Section 404.1527(c)”) factors before deciding
not to give Dr. Russo’s opinion controlling weight. Def.’s Br. 3-7, ECF No. 17. Specifically, the
Commissioner points out that ALJ noted that Dr. Russo was Plaintiff’s treating psychologist and that
Dr. Russo’s opinion was not consistent with the record and treatment notes. Def.’s Br. 3, ECF No.
17. The Commissioner argues that the regulations only require the ALJ to “apply” the factors and
articulate good reasons for the weight given to a treating source’s opinion, and that the ALJ is not
required to recite each factor as a litany in every case. Def.’s Br. 5, ECF No. 17.
In Newton v. Apfel, the Fifth Circuit stated the following:
[A]bsent reliable medical evidence from a treating or examining physician
controverting the claimant’s treating specialist, an ALJ may reject the opinion of the
treating physician only if the ALJ performs a detailed analysis of the treating
physician’s views under the criteria set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527[(c)]. . . . This
court  holds that an ALJ is required to consider each of the § 404.1527[(c)] factors
before declining to give any weight to the opinions of the claimant’s treating
specialist. The ALJ failed to perform this analysis, which should be conducted on
Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 453-56 (5th Cir. 2000). Section 404.1527(c) states in part the
(c) How we weigh medical opinions. Regardless of its source, we will evaluate every
medical opinion we receive. Unless we give a treating source’s opinion controlling
weight under paragraph (c)(2) of this section, we consider all of the following factors
in deciding the weight we give to any medical opinion.
(1) Examining relationship. Generally, we give more weight to the opinion
of a source who has examined you than to the opinion of a source who has not
(2) Treatment relationship. Generally, we give more weight to opinions from
your treating sources . . . . When we do not give the treating source’s opinion
controlling weight, we apply the factors listed in paragraphs (c)(2)(i) and (c)(2)(ii)
of this section, as well as the factors in paragraphs (c)(3) through (c)(6) of this
section in determining the weight to give the opinion. We will always give good
reasons in our notice of determination or decision for the weight we give your
treating source’s opinion.
(i) Length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of
examination. Generally, the longer a treating source has treated you and the more
times you have been seen by a treating source, the more weight we will give to the
source’s medical opinion. When the treating source has seen you a number of times
and long enough to have obtained a longitudinal picture of your impairment, we will
give the source’s opinion more weight than we would give it if it were from a
(ii) Nature and extent of the treatment relationship. Generally, the
more knowledge a treating source has about your impairment(s) the more weight we
will give to the source’s medical opinion. We will look at the treatment the source
has provided and at the kinds and extent of examinations and testing the source has
performed or ordered from specialists and independent laboratories.
(3) Supportability. The more a medical source presents relevant evidence to
support an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, the more
weight we will give that opinion.
(4) Consistency. Generally, the more consistent an opinion is with the record
as a whole, the more weight we will give to that opinion.
(5) Specialization. We generally give more weight to the opinion of a
specialist about medical issues related to his or her area of specialty than to the
opinion of a source who is not a specialist.
(6) Other factors. When we consider how much weight to give to a medical
opinion, we will also consider any factors you or others bring to our attention, or of
which we are aware, which tend to support or contradict the opinion.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
While the Commissioner contends that the ALJ conducted a sufficient analysis of the Section
404.1527(c) factors, Newton requires the ALJ to perform a detailed analysis of each of the Section
404.1527(c) factors before declining to give Dr. Russo’s opinion controlling weight. See Wilder,
2014 WL 2931884, at *5 (“Although Dr. Rumalla examined Plaintiff, his opinions do not contradict
the RFC assessments of Dr. Ruby as already discussed. Under the facts of this case, the ALJ was
required to provide a detailed analysis of the six factors.”); Gittens v. Astrue, 3:04-CV-2363-L, 2008
WL 631215, at *5 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 29, 2008) (“The court  finds that the ALJ had a duty to explain
why these medical opinions from a treating physician were rejected and to conduct the analysis
required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527[(c)]”). Without an articulation of a detailed analysis of the Section
404.1527(c) factors, the Court is uncertain as to whether the ALJ would have come to a different
conclusion had he given more consideration to Dr. Russo’s opinion. Upon consideration of the
foregoing, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence. See
Wilder, 2014 WL 2931884, at *6 (“On the record before it, the Court cannot say that the failure to
conduct the detailed analysis is harmless error. Had the ALJ conducted that analysis, there is a
realistic possibility that he would have given greater weight to the opinions of the treating
physician.”). Because the Court finds that reversal is warranted for the reasons discussed, the Court
pretermits consideration of Plaintiff’s alternative ground for reversal as he can raise it on remand.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.983 (providing that when a case is remanded from federal court, the ALJ may
consider any issues relating to the claim).
For the reasons stated above, the final decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and
SO ORDERED, this 1st day of May, 2017.
PAUL D. STICKNEY
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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