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 October 8, 2014, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.
Plaintiff was born on September 11, 1964. (Administrative Record ("AR") 162.) He completed eighth grade (AR 42), and he worked as an electronics technician and tractor-trailer truck driver (AR 65-66, 167).
On June 14, 2010, Plaintiff submitted an application for DIB, alleging that he had been unable to work since March 3, 2009, because of "[b]ack and neck injury" and "possible cancer under tongue." (AR 162, 166.) After his application was denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 96.) A hearing was held on August 7, 2012, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a vocational expert and Plaintiff's fiancee, Norma Perez. (AR 38-77.) In a written decision issued August 16, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 21-31.) On November 7, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1.) 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. See 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
An ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether someone 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 one 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, he 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 March 3, 2009, the alleged onset date. (AR 23.) At step two, he concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy,  status post lumbar fusion at L5-S1 with residual back pain and probable pseudoarthritis, status post hardware removal and augmentation of fusion at L5-S1, and mild lateral recess stenosis at L4-5." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 25.) At step four, he found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except that he could "occasionally climb ramps and stairs"; was "prohibited from climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds"; could "frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl"; "should avoid working around unprotected heights and hazardous machinery"; and could "use the bilateral lower extremities for frequent pushing and pulling." (Id.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that ...