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Heuvel v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 5, 2015



KENDALL J. NEWMAN, Magistrate Judge.


In this case filed on October 21, 2013, plaintiff, who proceeds without counsel, seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act").[1] On February 18, 2014, the Commissioner filed an answer and lodged the administrative record. (ECF Nos. 14, 15.) Ultimately, on November 13, 2014, after receiving several extensions of time to file an opening motion for summary judgment, plaintiff filed a "Request for Courts [sic] Consideration, " which the court liberally construed as a motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 28; see also ECF No. 29.) Subsequently, on December 18, 2014, the Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 31.) Finally, on December 30, 2014, plaintiff filed a "Request for Jury Trial & Damages from Social Security Administration Costs for Duration for Survival [sic], " which the court liberally construes as a reply brief. (ECF No. 32.)[2]

After carefully considering the applicable law, the parties' briefing and submissions, and the administrative record, the court DENIES plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, for the reasons outlined below.


Plaintiff was born on April 18, 1957, has a high school education with two years of college, is able to communicate in English, and previously worked as a cabinet maker and carpenter.[3] (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 18, 31, 172, 211, 213.) On February 8, 2011, plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that his disability began on August 15, 2010, and that he was disabled primarily due to impairments of the lower back, lumbar muscle, and sciatic nerve resulting in chronic back pain. (AT 12, 76, 91, 172, 212.) On June 9, 2011, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 12, 92-95.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, that determination was affirmed on September 22, 2011. (AT 12, 100-05.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which ultimately took place on October 24, 2012, and at which both plaintiff, represented by an attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (AT 12, 25-65.)

In a decision dated November 28, 2012, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from August 15, 2010, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 12-19.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on August 26, 2013. (AT 1-6.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on October 21, 2013, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)


Apart from claiming entitlement to Social Security benefits, plaintiff's "Request for Courts [sic] Consideration, " liberally construed as a motion for summary judgment, does not raise any specific legal issues for the court's review. However, whether or not required by applicable law, the court, given plaintiff's pro se status and the court's desire to resolve the action on the merits, conducts an independent review of the record to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings at each material step of the five-step sequential evaluation process, outlined in greater detail below. Furthermore, because plaintiff also submitted additional medical evidence to this court, the court considers whether plaintiff is entitled to a remand under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for administrative consideration of new medical evidence outside of the present administrative record.


The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007), quoting Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). "The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue , 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).


Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.[4] As an initial matter, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014. (AT 14.) At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2010, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with intermittent pain, bilateral shoulder tendinitis, and hypertension. (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 15.)

Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant can lift and carry thirty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, can sit for eight hours in an eight-hour day, can stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour day, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and/or crawl, can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally.

(AT 16.)

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 18.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined, based on the VE's testimony, that, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, plaintiff had acquired work skills from past relevant work that were transferable to ...

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