United States District Court, C.D. California
GLEN R. WITHROW, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ALKA SAGAR, Magistrate Judge.
On December 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Complaint, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for supplemental social security income ("SSI"). (Docket Entry No. 3.) On May 19, 2014, Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint and the Certified Administrative Record ("A.R."). (Docket Entry Nos. 13, 14.) The parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. (Docket Entry Nos. 8, 10.) On July 31, 2014, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") setting forth their respective positions on the two issues relevant to the consideration of Plaintiff's claim. (Docket Entry No. 15.) The Court has taken the action under submission without oral argument. See C.D. Local R. 7-15; "Order re Procedures in Social Security Case" (Docket Entry No. 7).
BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
Plaintiff Glen R. Withrow ("Plaintiff"), a former Walmart employee and Taco Bell cashier, asserts disability beginning September 15, 2008, based on the following alleged physical and mental impairments: depression, anxiety, leg and back problems, and alleged that the onset date of these impairments was September 20, 2008. (A.R. 302, 322, 383.) on April 17, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") examined the record and heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (A.R. 18.) Plaintiff testified that he hurt his leg while working at Walmart, and that he received treatment for his back pain and leg pain in conjunction with a worker's compensation case for that incident. (A.R. 120, 125.) On May 24, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI. (A.R. 15-36.)
The ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled. (A.R. 19-30.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not engaged in any "substantially gainful activity." (A.R. 20.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following medically determinable impairments: right knee and lumbar sprains/strains; patellofemoral chondromalacia of the right knee; depression; and anxiety. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or equal a medical listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (A.R. 20.)
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:
[Plaintiff] is able to stand for 6 hours, sit for 6 hours, and walk for 6 hours with the option to sit/stand at will. He should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, but can occasionally engage in climbing balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. In addition, the claimant can occasionally utilize a cane for uneven surfaces. He has pain in his back, leg, knee, and abdomen at a moderate level but is or can be controlled by appropriate medication or treatment without significant adverse side effects... He would have moderate capability of completing an undisturbed normal workday.
(A.R. 22.) The ALJ based the RFC finding in part on Plaintiff's "routine and conservative" treatment record rendered in connection with his worker's compensation claim for his knee injury. (A.R. 23.)
At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to return to his past work as a pizza maker/baker, lumberyard worker, stores laborer, or fast food worker. (A.R. 29.) The ALJ made this determination after comparing Plaintiff's RFC with the requirements of his past relevant work, and hearing testimony from a vocational expert. (A.R. 29.)
At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony that Plaintiff could perform the following jobs identified in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"): (1) cashier II, (2) garment bagger, (3) and production assembler (A.R. 29-30), along with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, to conclude that the "claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." (See id.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was "not disabled." (Id.)
On October 18, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 1-6.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This court reviews the Administration's decision to determine if: (1) the Administration's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Administration used proper legal standards. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1279. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, "a court must consider  the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). As a result, "[i]f evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, [a] court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004).
THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
"Social Security disability benefits claimants have the burden of proving disability." Bellamy v. Sec'y Health & Human Serv. , 755 F.3d 1380, 1380 (9th Cir. 1985). A claimant is disabled if he has the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, ALJs follow a five-step process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). "The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four." Parra v. Astrue , 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007).
At step one, the ALJ must determine whether or not the claimant is actually engaged in any "substantial gainful activity, " as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If claimant is not so engaged, the evaluation continues to step two. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).
At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimed physical or mental impairments are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). When determining severity, "the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's impairments on [his or] her ability to function, without regard to whether each alone was sufficiently severe." Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(2)(B)). Impairments are considered severe unless the evidence "establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.'" Id. at 1290 (quoting Yuckert v. Bowen , 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988)). "[I]f the ALJ concludes that the claimant does have a medically severe impairment, the ALJ proceeds to the next step in the sequence." Webb v. Barnhart , 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005); See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii).
At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's severe impairments are disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The claimant is considered disabled if his purported conditions meet or are medically equivalent to a listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). "[An] impairment is medically equivalent to a listed impairment in appendix 1 if it is at least equal in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment." 20 C.F.R. 404.1526. "Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings" rather than "[a] generalized assertion" or opinion testimony regarding "functional problems." Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526).
If the ALJ concludes that the claimant is not disabled at step three, the ALJ moves to step four and considers whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work. Burch , 400 F.3d at 679; See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). In order to do so, the ALJ determines claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A claimant's RFC is "what [claimant] can still do despite [claimant's] limitations, " and is "based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. 416.945(a)(1). If the claimant's RFC dictates that he can return to his past relevant work, he is not considered disabled. Burch , 400 F.3d at 679.
If the claimant proves in step four that he cannot return to his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). At step five "the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show that the claimant can do other kinds of work." Embrey v. Bowden , 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988). At this point, ALJs "can call upon a vocational expert to testify as to: (1) what jobs the claimant, given his or her [RFC], would be able to do; and (2) the availability of such jobs in the national economy." Tackett , 180 ...