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Stephens v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 9, 2014


For Edward B Stephens, Plaintiff: David Joseph Linden, Attorney at Law, Napa, CA.

For Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Marla Kendall Letellier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Regional Chief Counsel, Region IX, Social Security Administration, San Francisco, CA; Alex Gene Tse, U.S. Attorneys Office, San Francisco, CA.


RICHARD SEEBORG, United States District Judge.


Plaintiff Edward B. Stephens appeals the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying his request for supplemental security income (SSI) disability benefits. The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. Stephens seeks reversal of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) ruling, or in the alternative, that this case be remanded. Because substantial evidence does not support all of the ALJ's findings, the matter is remanded for further proceedings.


Stephens alleges he became disabled in October 2009 due to mental impairments and stopped working at the seal and coating company, where he had been employed for nine years, that same month. (AR 198.) He began to see a doctor in 2010 for his diabetes and mood swings, and further testified that while in school he suffered from dyslexia, struggled with writing, and was placed in special education. He also experiences racing thoughts and struggles to concentrate for longer than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. (AR 207.) According to both Stephens and his mother, he has trouble getting along with others, and has lost all of his past jobs due to his temper. (AR 59-60, 196.)

A single parent, Stephens cares for his six-year-old daughter on a daily basis. (AR 55.) He takes responsibility for dressing, feeding and getting his daughter to school, among other aspects of her life. He often sits on the porch while his daughter plays outside, or watches television while she plays on the floor. (AR 62.) Stephens testified that he usually watches television for three to four hours a day. Id. He also routinely shops for groceries, performs household chores, and cooks. (AR 61.) Stephens' mother testified that her son struggles to read, and that she pays his bills. (AR 195.)

Stephens filed an application for Social Security disability benefits in November 2010. The ALJ denied his request, and the Appeals Council declined to grant Stephens' request for review, rendering the ALJ's findings the Commissioner's final decision. Stephens moves for summary judgment or, in the alternative, to remand for further administrative proceedings. The motion, properly construed as an appeal, seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision, and a finding that Stephens is " disabled" under the Social Security Act.


A. Standard for Reviewing the Commissioner's Decision.

The Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is reviewed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence and grounded in correct legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995). The term " substantial evidence" means " more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance, " or " such reasonable evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Id. at 523. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). Where evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, however, the Court must defer to the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1258.

Legal error exists when an administrative court breaches its " special duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered, " resulting in non-harmless error to the applicant. Biley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2012 WL 4808439, *4 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (citation omitted). That special duty is only triggered " when the record is inadequate to allow for proper evaluation of the evidence." Id. (citation omitted).

If the ALJ's decision is not based on substantial evidence or contains legal error, the reviewing court may remand for further evidence, or enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Biley, 2012 WL 4808439 at *4. A social security case should be remanded if additional proceedings can remedy defects in the original administrative proceedings, while reversal is appropriate if rehearing simply would delay receipt of benefits. Lewin v. Schweiker, 654 F.2d 631, 635 (9th Cir. 1981).

B. Standard for Determining Disability.

A person qualifies for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act if he or she establishes an inability to " engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

Claims for disability benefits are evaluated according to a five-step, sequential evaluation process, through which the ALJ considers: 1) whether the claimant is ineligible for being engaged in substantial gainful activity[2]; 2) whether the claimant is ineligible for not having a medically " severe impairment" or combination thereof; 3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the impairment criteria listed in 20 CFR Part 404, subpart P, Appendix 1; 4) whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing her previous work; and 5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment under step three, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and apply it during steps four and five to make a final disability determination.[3] Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1034 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4), which describes the five-step process). A claimant who ...

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