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Gibbs v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

September 11, 2014

DIANE GIBBS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.

I.

PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed this action on November 15, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on November 26, 2013, and December 9, 2013. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") on August 7, 2014, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

II.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on December 19, 1960. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 20, 131, 137.] She has at least a high school education and no past relevant work experience. [AR at 21, 41, 45-46.]

On September 21, 2010, plaintiff protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income payments, and on November 4, 2010, she filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits. [AR at 9, 131-36, 137-38.] In both applications, plaintiff alleged disability beginning on December 31, 1986. [Id.] After her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintifffiled a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 9, 66-83, 85-86.] A hearing was held on December 20, 2011, at which time plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 9, 27-48.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 9, 44-47.] On December 29, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from December 31, 1986, through the date of the decision ("2011 Decision"). [AR at 9-22.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 5.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 22, 2012, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [AR at 1-3]; see Sam v. Astrue , 550 F.3d 808, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (per curiam).

On April 19, 2012, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court in Case Number ED CV 12-588-PLA. On January 9, 2013, this Court reversed the 2011 Decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings ("2013 Order"). [AR at 672-84.] On March 29, 2013, in accordance with the Court's Order, the Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's final decision and forwarded the claim file for further proceedings. [AR at 692-94.]

On June 26, 2013, a hearing was held before a different ALJ, at which plaintiff, a medical expert, and a vocational expert testified. [AR at 586-99, 605-36.] On August 29, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision ("2013 Decision"). [AR at 586-99.] This action followed.

III.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue , 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010).

"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." Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin. , 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (same). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Mayes v. Massanari , 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001); see Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where evidence is" susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld." Ryan , 528 F.3d at 1198 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) ("If the evidence can support either affirm ing or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, [the reviewing court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.").

IV.

THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

Persons 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 twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan , 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir.

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended April 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 is denied. Id . If the claimant is not currently 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 nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id . 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., pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id . 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" to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id . The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin , 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. 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. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester , 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin , 966 F.2d at 1257.

B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS

In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, December 31, 1986.[1] [AR at 588.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of cardiac dysrhythmias, asthma, affective mood disorder, and history of methamphetamine and marijuana abuse. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments in the Listings.[2] [AR at 589.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[3] to perform light work with the following limitations:

cannot work on unprotected heights nor can she work around dangerous machinery. She will require a clean air environment with no temperature extremes. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps and can occasionally stoop and bend. She is limited to simple, repetitive tasks with no intense sustained interaction with the public, ...

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