United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed this action on October 2, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on November 8, 2013, and November 18, 2013. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on February 18, 2015, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.
Plaintiff was born on May 19, 1971. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 30, 263.] She has past relevant work experience as a child monitor. [AR at 30, 100.]
On March 8, 2007, plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI payments, alleging that she has been unable to work since October 1, 2006. [AR at 20, 263-69.] The claim was denied initially and upon rehearing, and plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 20, 137-48.] After a hearing on June 30, 2009,  at which plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney and testified on her own behalf [AR at 68-106], an unfavorable decision issued on August 28, 2009. [AR at 122-31.] Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council and on August 4, 2011, the Appeals Council granted the request for review "under the substantial evidence provision" of the regulations, and issued a remand order vacating the hearing decision. [AR at 133-35.] The Appeals Council ordered the ALJ on remand to: (1) "[g]ive further consideration to [plaintiff's] maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue and provide rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations"; (2) evaluate the treating, nontreating, and nonexamining source opinions, including the opinions of treating physicians Reyadh J. Michail, M.D., and Gilbert Rosales, M.D., and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence; (3) request the treating and nontreating sources, as appropriate, to provide additional evidence and/or further clarification of the opinions and medical source statements about what plaintiff can still do despite the impairments; and (4) if warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert ("VE") to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on plaintiff's occupational base. [AR at 134.] On February 22, 2012, another hearing was held before the same ALJ, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 57-64.] The same VE who had testified at the previous hearing [AR at 99-104] also testified. [AR at 61-64.] On March 5, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from March 8, 2007, the date the application was filed. [AR at 20-31.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 15.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on July 26, 2013 [AR at 1-5], the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sam v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 808, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citations omitted). This action followed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
"Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (same). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted); see Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.") (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld." Ryan, 528 F.3d at 1198 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) ("If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, [the reviewing court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.") (citation omitted).
THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY
Persons 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 twelve 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 Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended April 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 is denied. Id . If the claimant is not currently 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 her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id . 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. Id . 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" to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id . The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id . The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled, because she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. Id . The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; 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 8, 2007, the application date. [AR at 23.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of scoliosis and rheumatoid arthritis. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments in the Listings. [Id.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a),  including lifting up to ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; standing and/or walking a total of two hours of an eight-hour workday; sitting up to six hours of an eight-hour workday; but no more than occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; and no overhead work with the left (non-dominant) upper extremity. [Id.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE at the 2009 hearing [see AR at 31, 99-104],  the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a child monitor. [AR at 30, 100.] At step five, based on plaintiff's RFC, vocational factors, and the VE's previous testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, including work as a "bench assembler" (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 739.687-182), and "telephone information clerk" (DOT No. 237.367-043). [AR at 31, 100-01.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled since March 8, 2007, the date the application was filed. [AR at 31.]
THE ALJ'S DECISION
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) rejected the opinions of plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Rosales, Dr. Michail, and Dan La, M.D.; (2) determined plaintiff's credibility; (3) failed to properly consider the combined effects of plaintiff's impairments when determining her RFC; and (4) relied upon the VE's testimony because the determined RFC did not include all of plaintiff's impairments. [Joint Stipulation ("JS") at 4.]
As set forth below, the Court agrees with plaintiff, in part, and remands for further proceedings.
A. MEDICAL ...