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Grinstead v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 9, 2015

HAROLD GRINSTEAD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

ORDER

KENDALL J. NEWMAN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act").[1] In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from July 15, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, [2] through the date of the final administrative decision. (ECF No. 15.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 19.) Plaintiff did not file a reply.

For the reasons that follow, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part, denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this order.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on September 15, 1951, is a high school graduate, attended one year of college, and previously worked as an insulation installer, pest exterminator, and power washer operator.[3] (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 34-37.) On February 10, 2010, plaintiff applied for both DIB and SSI, alleging that he was unable to work as of July 15, 2008. (AT 119-28.) On July 15, 2011, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 14, 69-74.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the determination was affirmed on October 27, 2010. (AT 78-82.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which took place on October 4, 2011, and at which plaintiff (represented by counsel) testified. (AT 14, 31-56.) During this hearing, plaintiff amended his alleged disability onset date to January 2, 2010. (AT 14, 33.)

In a decision dated April 5, 2012, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from July 15, 2008, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 14-25.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on September 26, 2013. (AT 1-5.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on January 9, 2014, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)

II. ISSUES PRESENTED

Plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical opinion evidence in the record when assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); (2) whether the ALJ erred in exclusively utilizing the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at Step Five to determine that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform; and (3) whether the ALJ failed to satisfy his duty to fully and fairly develop the record.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 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).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB and SSI pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.[4] At the First Step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 2, 2010, plaintiff's amended alleged disability onset date. (AT 16.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe combination of impairments: "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Dupuytren's contractures, and depression." (Id. (citations omitted).) However, at Step Three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 17.)

Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") for the ...


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