United States District Court, E.D. California
STEWARD T. BONTON, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
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, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act"). In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from April 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (ECF No. 15.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff subsequently filed a reply brief. (ECF Nos. 16, 17.)
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.
Plaintiff was born on May 7, 1961; has a GED; is able to communicate in English; and previously worked as a general laborer. (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 34-35, 46, 64-65.) Around June 2008, plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that he was unable to work as of April 2, 2008,  due to bypass heart surgery, left ear deafness, arthritis, back pain, and high cholesterol. (AT 28, 67-70, 183.) On October 9, 2008, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 28, 67-68, 78-82.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, that determination was affirmed around January 29, 2009. (AT 28, 69-70, 84-88.)
Subsequently, on March 17, 2009, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (AT 91-92.) However, after a hearing was scheduled for April 9, 2010 (AT 100-05), plaintiff's former counsel on April 2, 2010, filed a request to withdraw the prior hearing request. (AT 121.) Consequently, on April 26, 2010, the ALJ dismissed plaintiff's request for hearing, noting that the January 29, 2009 reconsideration determination remained in effect. (AT 74.) Thereafter, on May 27, 2010, plaintiff, at that time proceeding without counsel, filed a request for the Appeals Council to review the order of dismissal. (AT 122.) Plaintiff explained that "my attorney advised me I did not have a case and to drop my case. I did not understand I could attend my hearing without an attorney." (Id.) Ultimately, on June 24, 2011, the Appeals Council vacated the order of dismissal and remanded the case to the ALJ to provide plaintiff with another opportunity for a hearing. (AT 75-77.)
An administrative hearing was eventually conducted on September 15, 2011, at which plaintiff (proceeding without counsel), plaintiff's mother, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (AT 42-66.) In a subsequent decision dated September 19, 2011, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from April 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 28-36.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, prepared with the assistance of plaintiff's present counsel, on March 27, 2013. (AT 1-7.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on April 19, 2013, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)
II. ISSUES PRESENTED
Plaintiff has raised the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ failed to properly develop the record; (2) whether the ALJ improperly discounted the testimony of plaintiff and plaintiff's mother; (3) whether the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment was not supported by substantial evidence; (4) whether the ALJ erroneously relied on the Grids to find plaintiff not disabled; and (5) whether the evidence presented to the Appeals Council warrants remand.
III. LEGAL STANDARD
The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 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) (citation omitted). "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).
A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings
The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB and SSI pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework. As an initial matter, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act for purposes of DIB through March 31, 2011. (AT 30.) At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left ear hearing loss, obesity, coronary artery disease status-post coronary artery bypass surgery in January 2008, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, and cocaine use. (AT 31.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.)
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant has non-exertional limitations related to left ear hearing loss.
(AT 32-33.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 34.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined, in reliance on the Grids, that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (AT 35.)
Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from April 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, ...