Lopez v. Commissioner Of Social Security
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER granting 16 Defendant's MOTION for Summary Judgment and Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, and denying 14 Plaintiff's MOTION for Summary Judgment and affirms the final decision of the Commissioner. (Signed by Magistrate Judge Christina A Bryan) Parties notified.(cjan, 4)
United States District Court
Southern District of Texas
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
COMMISSIONER OF THE
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
July 16, 2021
Nathan Ochsner, Clerk
Civil Action No.: 4:20-cv-1814
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Lopez filed the present action under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) for review
of the Commissioner’s final decision denying his request for disability and disability insurance
benefits. Lopez and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 15,
16. Having considered the motions, the record, and the applicable law, the Court DENIES Lopez’s
Motion (ECF No. 15), GRANTS the Commissioner’s Motion (ECF No. 16) and AFFIRMS the
final decision of the Commissioner. 1
A. Procedural History
Lopez filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II,
alleging disability beginning May 1, 2017. Following the denial of his application and subsequent
request for reconsideration, Lopez requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) and a hearing took place on August 7, 2019. The ALJ issued a decision on August 28,
The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this Magistrate Judge for all purposes, including entry of final
judgment. ECF No. 10.
2019, finding Lopez was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals
Council denied review on March 20, 2020 and the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner. Tr. 1; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.
B. Standard for Review of the Commissioner’s Decision
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) (citations
omitted). 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) (citing 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.
C. 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 12 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.
At the first step, the ALJ decides whether the claimant is currently working or “doing
substantial gainful activity.” Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is
not disabled. At the second step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe
impairment. Id. at §§ 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. pt. 404, subpt. p, app. 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 F. App’x 241, 245 (5th Cir. 2011). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the
claimant’s RFC permits him to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
416.920(a)(4)(iv). If not, the ALJ determines at step five whether the claimant can perform 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.
D. The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ performed the standard five-step sequential analysis. First, the ALJ found Lopez
has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2017. Tr. 23. Next, the ALJ
determined that Lopez’s diabetes mellitus and hypertension are severe impairments, but that Lopez
had not established medically determinable impairments related to his back and knee pain. Tr. 2324. At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Lopez’s impairments, alone or in combination,
meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 after specifically
considering Lopez’s diabetes mellitus under Listings 1.00, 2.00, 4.00, 5.00, 6.00, 8.00, 11.00, and
12.00 and Lopez’s hypertension under Listing 4.00H. Tr. 24. The ALJ found Lopez has the RFC
perform the full range of light work . . . [and] lift, carry, push, or pull twenty pounds
occasionally and ten pounds frequently. He is able to stand or walk six hours out
of an eight-hour workday and he is able to sit six hours out of an eight-hour
Tr. 24-25. After comparing Lopez’s RFC with the physical and mental demands of his past
relevant work, the ALJ found Lopez could still perform his past relevant work as an automobile
porter (DOT 3 915.687-022). Tr. 27. Thus, the ALJ concluded Lopez has not been under a
disability since May 1, 2017 through the date of her decision. Tr. 28.
Lopez argues that as the result of two errors, the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported
by substantial evidence. First, Lopez argues that the ALJ erred by failing to “reconcile” Lopez’s
limitations as set forth in the consulting examiner’s opinion with her finding that Lopez maintains
the RFC for light work. Second, Lopez argues the ALJ erred by finding that his back and knee
pain were not medically determinable impairments.
A. The ALJ did not err by evaluating the consulting examiner’s opinion to be “generally
persuasive,” and still finding Lopez maintains the RFC for light work.
The ALJ did not err by finding Dr. Sahi’s opinion “generally persuasive,” and also finding
that Lopez maintains the RFC for light work. To begin with, the ALJ considered the supportability
and consistency of Dr. Sahi’s opinion in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520c. 2 For example, the ALJ’s written opinion includes a two-paragraph narrative discussion
of Dr. Sahi’s opinion in which the ALJ identifies specific record evidence in support of Dr. Sahi’s
opinion and finds it is consistent with the state agency consultant’s opinions from prior
administrative findings. See Stephens v. Saul, Civil Action No. 3:20-CV-823-BH, 2020 WL
Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c, the Commissioner is required to articulate how persuasive he finds all medical
opinions and prior administrative findings in the medical record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b). In doing so, the ALJ
considers certain factors: supportability, consistency, treatment relationship with the claimant, specialization, and
other factors, such as familiarity with other evidence in the claim. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(c). Supportability and
consistency are the most important factors, and the ALJ must explain how he considered these factors for every
medical opinion or prior administrative medical finding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b)(2).
7122860, at *7 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 4, 2020) (finding the ALJ satisfied § 404.1520c where the decision
stated the ALJ considered the medical opinion evidence in accordance with the rule, and the
decision reflected consideration of the supportability and consistency factors). Furthermore, the
ALJ found the state agency examiners’ prior administrative opinions that Lopez can stand and/or
walk (with normal breaks) for six hours in an eight-hour workday are “consistent with the results
of Dr. Sahi’s consultative examination[.]” 3 Tr. 26. After finding Dr. Sahi’s opinion consistent
with the prior administrative medical findings of the state agency examiners, the ALJ incorporated
the ability to stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day into Lopez’s RFC.
The ALJ did not err by failing to “reconcile” an alleged conflict between Dr. Sahi’s opinion
and the RFC for light work. Dr. Sahi’s opinion that Lopez is able to sit for long periods of time,
stand, walk for moderate distances, and do moderate lifting, is not incompatible with the RFC for
light work, which requires “a good deal” of walking or standing. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).
Contrary to Lopez’s argument, Dr. Sahi’s opinion and the RFC are not inconsistent, and the ALJ
did not err by failing to reconcile an inconsistency that does not exist. See Poindexter v. Comm.,
Soc. Sec. Admin., Case No. 2:19-cv-0293-RSP, 2021 WL 1252034, at *3 (E.D. Tex. Apr. 5, 2021)
(finding opinion that claimant had “mild limitations with standing and moderate limitations with
walking” constituted substantial evidence to support an RFC for light work which requires a
good deal of walking).
Finally, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Lopez maintains the
RFC for light work. Dr. Sahi opined that Lopez can sit for long periods, stand, walk for moderate
distances, and do moderate lifting. Tr. 274. The ALJ found Dr. Sahi’s opinions “generally
persuasive.” Tr. 26. The record also contains two prior administrative findings that Lopez can
Dr. Sahi’s examination revealed that Lopez exhibited mostly normal abilities with some limitations of his ability to
bend and squat
stand and/or walk (with normal breaks) for six hours in an eight-hour workday. Tr. 60, 70. The
ALJ found these opinions “persuasive.” Tr. 26. The physical exertion requirements for light work
include lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent carrying of objects weighing up to
10 pounds. Light work requires a good deal of walking or standing or, when it involves sitting
most of the time, some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b). The
Social Security Regulations further clarify the requirements of light work:
Since frequent lifting or carrying requires being on one's feet up to two-thirds of a
workday, the full range of light work requires standing or walking, off and on, for
a total of approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. Sitting may occur
intermittently during the remaining time. The lifting requirement for the majority
of light jobs can be accomplished with occasional, rather than frequent, stooping.
SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *5-6 (Jan. 1, 1983). The Court finds that Dr. Sahi’s opinion and
the two prior administrative medical findings (based on state agency consultant opinions) provide
substantial evidence in support of the ALJ’s finding that Lopez maintains the RFC to perform the
full range of light work.
B. The ALJ committed harmless error by finding Lopez did not have a medically
determinable impairment from back or knee problems.
Lopez argues the ALJ erred when she found that Lopez had failed to present evidence of
medically determinable impairments related to his back or knee pain. The Court agrees the ALJ
erred by failing to consider the clinical evidence of his back and knee limitations and by instead
relying only on the negative findings in the x-rays. A medically determinable impairment
must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that can
be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.
Therefore, a physical or mental impairment must be established by objective
medical evidence from an acceptable medical source.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 (emphasis added). Dr. Sahi’s office performed a physical examination and
noted Lopez had tenderness in his back, difficulty bending and squatting, tender knees, and a
decreased range of motion in his knees and back. Tr. 273. Dr. Sahi attached to the consultative
examination report a range of motion evaluation chart, which showed a limited range of motion in
Lopez’s back and knee. Tr. 277. Despite these clinical findings the ALJ found Lopez failed to
present evidence establishing medically determinable impairments related to his back and knee
pain. Tr. 23-24. The Court agrees with Lopez that the clinical findings constitute objective
evidence from an acceptable medical source and support the finding of a medically determinable
impairment. However, the Court finds the ALJ’s error was harmless.
Lopez has failed to demonstrate he was harmed by the ALJ’s failure to classify his back
and knee pain as medically determinable impairments. See Jones v. Astrue, 691 F.3d 730, 734–35
(5th Cir. 2012) (“The party seeking to overturn the Commissioner's decision has the burden to
show that prejudice resulted from an error.”). Throughout the written decision, the ALJ expressly
considered Lopez’s complaints of back and knee pain and the medical records related to those
symptoms. Tr. 23 (discussing reports of knee and back pain); Tr. 26 (describing Dr. Sahi’s findings
regarding back and knee pain). The ALJ noted that during Dr. Sahi’s examination Lopez exhibited
“mostly normal abilities with some limitations of his ability to bend and squat.” Tr. 26. The ALJ
noted these findings were also consistent with the state agency consultants’ opinions. Id. Thus,
when determining Lopez’s RFC, the ALJ considered all of Lopez’s symptoms, including his
complaints of back and knee pain and Dr. Sahi’s medical exam demonstrating a limited range of
motion and limitations on bending and squatting. Tr. 23-25. Lopez has failed to demonstrate that,
had the ALJ classified Lopez’s back and knee pain as medically determinable impairments, she
would have made a more restrictive RFC finding. See Victoria G. v. Berryhill, No. 1:17-CV-180BL, 2018 WL 4471644, at *4 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 18, 2018) (explaining any error in classifying
fibromyalgia as not medically determinable is harmless without a showing that the RFC would
likely change if the ALJ treated the fibromyalgia as a medically determinable impairment); see
also Trego v. Berryhill, Civil Action No. 4:15-cv-00182-O, 2017 WL 3276005, at *2 (N.D. Tex.
Aug. 2, 2017) (finding remand not required where the claimant failed to show that, had the ALJ
deemed her fibromyalgia a medically determinable impairment, the ALJ would have given greater
weight to her subjective complaints of fatigue and found a more restrictive RFC).
For the reasons stated above, the Court DENIES Lopez’s Motion for Summary Judgment
(ECF No. 15), GRANTS the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16), and
AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s final decision.
Signed at Houston, Texas on July 16, 2021.
Christina A. Bryan
United States Magistrate Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?