United States District Court, C.D. California
CORTEZ A. REX, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARGARET A. NAGLE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed a Complaint on May 6, 2013, seeking review of the denial of plaintiff's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). (ECF No. 3.) On September 30, 2013, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (ECF No. 10.) The parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") on February 13, 2014, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits; and the Commissioner requests that her decision be affirmed or, alternatively, remanded for further administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 18.) The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on March 10, 2010. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 15.) Plaintiff, who was born on October 10, 1957 ( id. 98),  claims to have been disabled since August 28, 2009, due to hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and mental health conditions ( id. 15, 171.) Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a "Math Teacher, " Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 090.227-022. (A.R. 24.)
After the Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially, plaintiff requested a hearing. (A.R. 15.) On August 24, 2011, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Stuart M. Kaye (the "ALJ"). ( Id. 15, 25.) Medical experts Harvey Alpern, M.D., and David B. Peterson, Ph.D., and vocational expert, Sandra Schneider, also testified. ( Id. 15, 41, 44, 50.) On September 6, 2011, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim. ( Id. 15-25.) Plaintiff asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision and submitted additional evidence - an evaluation and treatment notes from plaintiff's treating clinical psychologist - for the Appeals Council's consideration. ( Id. 6-9.) On February 27, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. ( Id. 2-6).
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
In his September 6, 2011 decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014, and plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 28, 2009, the alleged onset date of his disability. (A.R. 17.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the severe impairments of: hypertension; diabetes; gout; major depressive disorder single episode, moderate; panic disorder without agoraphobia; psychological factors affecting medical condition; insomnia; and sleep disorder. ( Id. 17-18.) The ALJ concluded, however, that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). ( Id. 19.)
After reviewing the record, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "light work as defined in 20 CFR [§] 404.1567(b)... [and] can lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, stand or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour work day, sit 6 hours in an 8-work day, and he can handle and finger bilaterally on an occasional basis." (A.R. 20-21.) The ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a Math Teacher (DOT No. 090.227-022), because "[t]his work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [plaintiff]'s [RFC]." ( Id. 24.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 28, 2009, the alleged onset date, through September 6, 2011, the date of the ALJ's decision. ( Id. 24-25.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). "While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice." Widmark v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs. , 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn , 495 F.3d at 630 (citing Connett , 340 F.3d at 874). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination....'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Stout v. Comm'r , 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch , 400 F.3d at 679.
Plaintiff alleges two sources of error. First, plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff could do his past relevant work. (Joint Stip. at 4.) Second, plaintiff claims the ALJ did ...