United States District Court, C.D. California
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER
JEAN ROSENBLUTH, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation, filed February 24, 2014, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this action is dismissed.
Plaintiff was born on January 9, 1956, and has an associate's degree. (AR 38, 164.) She previously worked as an area supervisor at a recycling company, office manager, receptionist, and accounting clerk. (AR 40-51, 208-14.)
On September 21, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB. (AR 111, 164-67.) She alleged that she had been unable to work since August 26, 2009, because of "[d]rop foot" and right-leg nerve damage. (AR 164, 188.) After Plaintiff's application was denied, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 109-10.)
A hearing was held on August 10, 2011, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by a nonattorney,  testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). (AR 33-108.) In a written decision issued September 9, 2011, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 18-28.) On October 4, 2011, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. (AR 13.) On April 23, 2013, after considering new evidence submitted by Plaintiff, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. (AR 1-5.) This action followed.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue , 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson , 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue , 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter , 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court "must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). Moreover, "when the Appeals Council considers new evidence in deciding whether to review a decision of the ALJ, that evidence becomes part of the administrative record, which the district court must consider when reviewing the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence." Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 682 F.3d 1157, 1163 (9th Cir. 2012); see also Taylor v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 659 F.3d 1228, 1232 (9th Cir. 2011). If the evidence as a whole can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for the Commissioner's. Reddick , 157 F.3d at 720-21.
IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY
People are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan , 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).
A. The Five-Step Evaluation Process
The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of not disabled is made and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin , 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id . If that happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 404.1520; Lester , 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin , 966 F.2d at 1257.
B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Process
At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2009, her alleged onset date. (AR 20.) At step two, he concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "right peroneal nerve paralysis (foot drop), lumbar spine acute denervation in the distribution of the sciatic nerve and chronic denervation in the distribution of L4 and L5, obesity, and mild effusion of the right ankle and knee." (AR 21 (citations omitted).) He found that Plaintiff did not have any medically determinable heart, hand, shoulder, or mental impairment. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 21-22.) At step four, he found that Plaintiff had the RFC to
lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and walk for four hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally engage in postural activities. She can occasionally push and pull with her lower extremities. The claimant can occasionally engage in overhead reaching with her right upper extremities [sic]. The claimant must use a cane for prolonged ambulation. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant also must not be exposed to heights or hazards.
(AR 23.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's RFC was "consistent with a capacity between the exertional requirements of sedentary work and light exertional work" but "falls closer to the sedentary exertional level." (Id. (citations omitted).) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as an accounting clerk and receptionist, both of which are ...