United States District Court, C.D. California
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER
JEAN ROSENBLUTH, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his 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 July 3, 2014, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and judgment is entered in her favor.
Plaintiff was born November 27, 1969. (Administrative Record ("AR") 148.) He completed the 12th grade and worked as a machine operator at three different companies and general helper at a company that produced cardboard boxes. (AR 166-67.)
Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on February 1, 2010. (AR 71, 148-51.) He alleged that he had been unable to work since October 10, 2008, because of a "[b]ack and legs injury, " "numbness in both hands, " and headaches. (AR 165.) After his application was denied, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 90.) A hearing was held on January 30, 2012, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (AR 32-70.) In a written decision issued August 2, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 14-27.) On September 11, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-3.) 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 based on the record as a whole. Id .; 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). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, " the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Id. 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 his 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 his 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 he 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 he 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 substantial gainful activity since October 10, 2008, his alleged onset date. (AR 16.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had severe impairments of "chronic cervical strain with mild degenerative disc disease; chronic lumbosacral strain with mild degenerative disc disease; chronic bilateral knee strain; chronic bilateral wrist strain; and obesity." (Id.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's left-knee osteoarthritis, gastrointestinal issues, and depression were not severe (AR 16-18), findings Plaintiff does not challenge. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a Listing. (AR 18.) At step four, she found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform "light work, " specifically, he could "lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can stand and walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, " and he was "limited to frequent gross handling and fingering." (AR 19.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as an "extension edger" as generally performed in the regional and national economies. (AR 26.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 26-27.)
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in (1) evaluating the medical evidence, (2) assessing his credibility, and (3) "develop[ing] and analyz[ing]" the vocational evidence. (J. Stip. at 3-4.)
A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Assessing the Medical Evidence
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ "failed to properly consider relevant medical evidence which is supportive of [Plaintiff's] claim of disability" (id. at 4), including evidence of his meniscus tears and parts of Dr. Kim's opinion (id. at 5-6). For the reasons discussed below, reversal is not warranted on this ground.
1. Applicable law
A district court must uphold an ALJ's RFC assessment when the ALJ has applied the proper legal standard and substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the decision. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1217 (9th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider all the medical evidence in the record and "explain in [her] decision the weight given to... [the] opinions from treating sources, nontreating sources, and other nonexamining sources." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(2)(ii); see also § 404.1545(a)(1) ("We will assess your residual functional capacity based on all the relevant evidence in your case record."); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996) (same). In making an RFC determination, the ALJ may consider those limitations for which there is support in the record and need not consider properly rejected evidence or subjective complaints. See Bayliss, 427 F.3d at 1217 (upholding ALJ's RFC determination because "the ALJ took into account those limitations for which there was record support that ...