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Guzman v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

October 3, 2014

ESMERALDA GUZMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MARGARET A. NAGLE, Magistrate Judge.

On July 30, 2013, plaintiff filed a Complaint seeking review of the denial of her application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). (ECF No. 3.) On September 4, 2013, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (ECF No. 11.) On March 27, 2014, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation, in which plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding this case for the payment of benefits or, alternatively, for further administrative proceedings; and the Commissioner requests that her decision be affirmed or, alternatively, remanded for further administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 15 at 24-25.) The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

On January 19, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for SSI. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 126.) Plaintiff, who was born on April 16, 1974 ( id. ), [1] claims to have been disabled since October 1, 2007, due to a work injury to her right hand, surgery on that hand, hand movement loss, and right shoulder injury ( id. 126, 140). Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a machine operator. ( Id. 53, 141.)

After the Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially, and upon reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing. (A.R. 27.) On February 27, 2012, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Mary L. Everstine (the "ALJ"). ( Id. 41, 42-52.) Vocational expert ("VE"), Sharon Spaventa, also testified. ( Id. 53-56) On March 9, 2012, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim. ( Id. 27-34.) The Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision ( id. 6-11), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. That decision is now at issue in this action.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

In her March 9, 2012, decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 19, 2010, the application date. (A.R. 29.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: "bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post right carpal tunnel release and right neuroplasty (January 2002); status post left carpal tunnel release and left ulnar nerve decompression (October 2007); status post right shoulder subacromial decompression and debridement (September 2009); and obesity." ( Id. ) However, the ALJ also concluded that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). ( Id. )

After reviewing the record, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the following limitations: lifting/carrying no more than ten pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; standing/walking and sitting for no more than about six hours each in an eight-hour workday; only occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, overhead reaching with the dominant right upper extremity, and intensive (more than 15 minutes per hour) precision fingering such as keyboarding; no crawling, prolonged pushing/pulling with bilateral upper extremities, repetitive power gripping or squeezing; and frequent but not constant fine manipulation. (A.R. 29-30.) In making this finding, the ALJ considered the medical evidence and opinions of record and the subjective symptom testimony of plaintiff, whom the ALJ found was not credible to the extent her statements were inconsistent with the RFC. ( Id. 30-32.) The ALJ stated that she also gave great weight to the opinions of the agreed orthopedic medical examiner, Dr. Elmore G. Smith, and the two state agency medical consultants, Dr. Keith Jay Wahl, an ear, nose, and throat doctor and Fellow with the American College of Surgeons, and Dr. Anne Khong, an opthamologist. ( Id. 32; see also A.R. 270 (Dr. Wahl's Medical Consultant's Code is "08"), 315 (Dr. Khong's Medical Consultant's Code is "28"); Completing Items 30-33, Social Security Administration Program Operation Manual System ("POMS") § DI 26510.090(D).) The ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Mark T. Montgomery, a board certified orthopedic and hand surgeon. (A.R. 32.)

Relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. (A.R. 33.) Based on plaintiff's age, education, [2] work experience, and RFC, as well as the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that plaintiff "is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, " including the jobs of retail marker, DOT 209.587-034, and hotel/motel housekeeper, DOT 323.687-014. ( Id. 34, 55.)

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). "Substantial evidence is 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.'" Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). "Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Molina v. Astrue , 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012).

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." Lingenfelter v. Astrue , 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs. , 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). "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). 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; see also Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). 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, ...


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