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Vaupell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 12, 2014

GABRIEL VAUPELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

ORDER

KENDALL J. NEWMAN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.[1] In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from September 26, 2006, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date ("AOD"), through September 8, 2008, the date on which the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined plaintiff became disabled. (ECF No. 19.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 22.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (ECF No. 23.) For the reasons that follow, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and enters judgment for the Commissioner.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, born July 20, 1974, [2] formally applied for DIB and SSI on October 12, 2006, and October 27, 2006, respectively. (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 17, 25.) Plaintiff alleged he was disabled as of September 26, 2006, due to impairments relating to diabetes that include but are not limited to: neuropathic pain, peripheral neuropathy, and retinopathy. (AT 17, ECF No. 1.) His applications "were denied initially on December 5, 2006, and upon reconsideration on May 23, 2007." (AT 17.) Plaintiff "filed a timely written request for hearing on July 17, 2007." (Id.)

On October 7, 2008, a hearing was held before an ALJ. (Id.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and he and his mother testified. (Id.) On March 25, 2009, the ALJ held that plaintiff was not disabled prior to September 8, 2008 but became disabled on that date. (AT 17-27.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on November 25, 2008. (AT 1-3.)

Plaintiff filed an action in district court to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Vaupell v. Astrue, 2011 WL 675359 (E.D. Cal. February 16, 2011). On February 16, 2011, the court held that the ALJ did not properly consider plaintiff's treating physicians' opinion regarding the onset date of his disability, and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at *7.

On remand, the Appeals Council vacated the prior decision and directed the ALJ to offer the opportunity for another hearing, take any further action to complete the administrative record, and issue a new decision pursuant to the District Court order. (AT 1457.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing held on July 21, 2011. (Id.) A psychologist and a vocational expert also appeared and testified. (Id.) In a decision dated October 27, 2011, the ALJ again determined plaintiff was not disabled prior to September 8, 2008, but became disabled on that date. (AT 1469.) That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on December 20, 2012. (AT 1436-39.) Plaintiff then filed this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision on January 14, 2013. (ECF No. 1.)

II. ISSUES PRESENTED

Plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ followed Social Security Ruling 83-20; (2) whether the ALJ improperly discredited the testimony of plaintiff and his mother; (3) whether the ALJ improperly discredited plaintiff's treating physicians' opinions; (4) whether the ALJ considered the role of episodic absences in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (5) whether plaintiff's RFC was based on substantial evidence. (ECF No. 19.)

III. LEGAL STANDARD

This court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether: (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). "The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue , 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to benefits pursuant to the standard five-step analytical framework.[3] As an initial matter, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011. (AT 1459.) At the first step, the ALJ concluded plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 26, 2006. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy, neuropathic pain, and diabetic retinopathy. (Id.) At step three, however, the ALJ determined plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 1460.)

Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's RFC as follows:

Prior to September 8, 2008, the date the claimant became disabled, the undersigned finds, after careful consideration of the entire record, that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except he cannot perform work that requires close detailed tasks due to vision limitations.

(AT 1461.)

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 1467.) At step five, the ALJ considered plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and determined there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy plaintiff would be able to perform. (Id.) Specifically, the vocational expert testified plaintiff could perform the following unskilled representative occupations: telephone quotation clerk; charge account clerk; and telemarketer. (AT 1468.)

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled prior to September 8, 2008, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. (AT 1469.)

B. Plaintiff's Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner's Determinations

1. Whether the ALJ Followed Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 83-20

SSR 83-20 lists the three main factors used to determine disability onset: (1) plaintiff's AOD; (2) plaintiff's work history; and (3) the medical evidence.[4] SSR 83-20 at *1. The AOD is the starting point, and the date on which the impairment caused the claimant to stop work is often significant in selecting the proper onset date; however, such factors are only significant when they are consistent with the severity of the condition(s) shown ...


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