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Aguilar v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. California

April 22, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Officially as Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


ROGER T. BENITEZ, District Judge.

On April 12, 2013, Plaintiff Dana Ann Aguilar commenced an action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. (Docket No. 1). Aguilar filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on November 12, 2013. (Docket No. 11). Defendant filed a Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on December 2, 2013. (Docket No. 12). On March 14, 2014, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nita L. Stormes issued a Report and Recommendation which recommended that this Court deny Aguilar's Motion for Summary Judgment and grant Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 14). Aguilar filed a timely Objection to the Report and Recommendation on March 27, 2014. (Docket No. 15).


The procedural history of this matter and a summary of the administrative record has been laid out in the thorough Report and Recommendation issued by the Magistrate Judge. As this history is well-known to the parties, this Court adopts the Magistrate Judge's description of the administrative record and procedural history. A short summary of relevant events is laid out below.

A. Procedural History

Aguilar filed applications for disability and supplemental social security income benefits under the Social Security Act on November 30, 2007. (AR 177-83). Aguilar claims her condition rendered her unable to work on January 1, 2002. ( Id. ) The request was initially denied on July 23, 2008, and Aguilar filed a written request for a hearing on September 10, 2008. (AR 20).

A hearing was held on February 18, 2008 before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (AR 54-76). A second hearing was held on March 28, 2011. (AR 37-53). The ALJ issued a decision denying Aguilar's application on May 9, 2011. (AR 20-31). The Appeal Council denied Aguilar's request to review the decision, and the ALJ's decision became final. (AR 8-13, 15-16).

Aguilar now seeks judicial review of the decision. She argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by (1) improperly discrediting a treating physician's evidence and opinion, (2) failing to consider the testimony of a third-party witness, (3) failing to consider the impact of obesity on her other ailments, and (4) not basing the decision on substantial evidence.

B. ALJ'S Written Decision

The ALJ found that Aguilar last met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2006. (AR 22). She did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged date of onset, January 1, 2002 through December 31, 2006. ( Id. ) He found that Aguilar had the following severe impairments: a back disorder, asthma, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (AR 23). He concluded that Aguilar did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met one of the listed impairments. (AR 25). The ALJ determined that Aguilar has a residual functional capacity to perform medium work, with certain limitations. (AR 25-26). He concluded that her residual functional capacity allowed her to perform past relevant work as an office manager and as a floor manager. (AR 29). He therefore found that Aguilar was not disabled from January 1, 2002 to the date the decision. (AR 30).


To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, an applicant is required to show two things. First, she must show that she suffers from a medically determinable impairment that can be expected to result in death, or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of twelve months or more. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Second, she must show that the impairment renders her incapable of performing the work that she previously performed, or any other substantially gainful employment that exists in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

Regulations promulgated pursuant to the Social Security Act specify the process that the Social Security Administration uses to determine whether an applicant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the agency considers whether the claimant is presently working in any substantial gainful activity. If so, he or she is not disabled. If not, the agency considers whether the claimant's impairment is severe. If not severe, he or she is not disabled. If the impairment is severe, the agency then considers whether the impairment meets or equals a specific impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments. If so, the applicant is disabled. If not, the agency considers whether the claimant is able to do any other work. If not, the claimant is disabled. If there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999). The burden on steps one through four rests on the applicant, but the burden at step five rests on the agency. Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1180 (9th Cir. 2003). Applicants who are not disqualified at step five are eligible for disability benefits. Id.

An applicant may seek judicial review of a final agency decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). A district court determines de novo any part of a Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation that has been properly objected to. FED. R. CIV. P. 72(b)(3). A final decision may only be disturbed if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error, or are not supported by "substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Schneider v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000).

Findings of fact are conclusive if supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. See Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical ...

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