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Garcia v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

November 30, 2017

ROGELIO ALEMAN GARCIA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, JONES, and SMITH, Circuit Judges.


         Rogelio Garcia appeals the district court's decision to deny disability benefits he sought from the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). Because the decision is supported by substantial evidence, we affirm.


         In January 2012, Garcia applied for disability insurance benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 423 as of January 1, 2007, based on hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") allegedly induced by his service in Vietnam. The SSA denied his application initially and on reconsideration, so he sought a de novo hearing before an ALJ. After considering Garcia's work and medical history, the ALJ likewise denied the application.

         The record before the ALJ revealed that since leaving the service, Garcia had earned consistent, and at times substantial, income through 2005. Between 1997 and 1999, he was a dispatcher at a produce company, where he was responsible for traffic control and oversaw the work of four other employees. In 2000, he started his own produce brokerage business and managed several employees. He has not worked since December 2005.

         At some point between 2005 and 2007, Garcia sought treatment from a doctor for "dizzy spells" and was advised that he should file for disability with the Veteran's Administration ("VA"). He applied in August 2009 and was subject to a psychological evaluation by Dr. Paul Hamilton one year later as part of the VA's evaluation.[1] Hamilton found that Garcia possessed powers of comprehension, judgment, communication, and abstract thinking, all within a normal range, but that his "impaired attention" and abnormal speech patterns left "little opportunity for normal" conversation. Hamilton also concluded that Garcia would make a poor employee given the difficulty in containing anger and his "graphic visualization of killing others."

         In June 2011, largely on the basis of that assessment, the Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Garcia suffered from war-induced PTSD, which resulted in his "100% disability, " effective August 28, 2009, the date on which his claim was filed. Garcia's medical records indicate that in the thirty years before that determination, he had not been not diagnosed with or treated for PTSD.

         In March 2012, Dr. Noel Nick examined Garcia at the VA's request in connection with a separate claim for compensation for Traumatic Brain Injury ("TBI"). Nick determined that Garcia's visual/spatial test score was below normal; his memory, attention, concentration and executive functions were mildly impaired; and his judgment, motor activity, and communication skills were within a normal range. Nick also reviewed Garcia's medical history, which included Hamilton's report, a negative PTSD screen from 2004, and a positive one from March 2010. Nick concluded that Garcia's symptoms likely were not caused by his combat service.

         Two months before that, in January 2012, Garcia filed for social security disability benefits, claiming eligibility as of January 2007. The agency solicited the opinions of two mental health specialists-Dr. Charles Lawrence, a state agency psychologist, and Dr. Anthony Hammond-to assess Garcia's application. After studying Garcia's medical records and performing an in-person review, Lawrence concluded there was insufficient evidence that hearing loss and PTSD had rendered Garcia disabled. Hammond reached the same conclusion on the basis of Garcia's records.

         In November 2013, the ALJ held an evidentiary hearing to consider testimony from Garcia and a vocational expert, Malloy Kelley, on Garcia's alleged disability. Garcia claimed that from 2005 to 2007, he had become increasingly "forgetful" and had let his produce brokerage business "drift away." On questioning by his representative, Garcia also recalled having panic attacks, nightmares, and hallucinations. Kelley testified next that a person with Gar-cia's alleged symptoms would be unable to perform any of his prior work.

         The ALJ denied benefits and made the following findings: (a) Garcia had not performed substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of the disability in January 2008; (b) he suffered from severe tinnitus, degenerative arthritis in his right knee, and right shoulder arthralgia; (c) his PTSD was not severe, because it placed no more than a "minimal limitation" on his ability to perform "basic mental work activities"; (d) none of his impairments, either individually or in combination, matched the severity of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart B, Appendix 1; (e) he had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b);[2](f) he was capable of performing past relevant work as an agriculture broker; and (g) he was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act (the "Act"), at any time from the alleged onset date of January 1, 2007, through December 31, 2007, the date last insured.

         Garcia appealed internally, and the Appeals Council declined his request to review, rendering the ALJ's adverse decision final. Garcia sought review in the district court per 42 U.S.C § 405(g). The magistrate judge ("MJ") recommended that the ALJ's determination be affirmed. The district ...

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