United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division
JOHN B. SCHRADER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff filed this action on May 23, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on June 11, 2014, and June 16, 2014. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on February 19, 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 September 10, 1960. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 16, 164, 171.] He has past relevant work experience as a property manager. [AR at 16, 44.]
On July 11, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for SSI payments; on September 17, 2011, he filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. [AR at 164, 171.] In both applications plaintiff alleged that he has been unable to work since June 6, 2010. [AR at 9, 164-70, 171-79.] After his applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 9, 110-12.] A hearing was held on January 9, 2013, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on his own behalf. [AR at 25-49.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 44-48.] On January 28, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from June 6, 2010, the alleged onset date, through January 28, 2013, the date of the decision. [AR at 9-19.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 5.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 19, 2014 [AR at 1-3], 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 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 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 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 his 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 his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id . The claimant has the burden of proving that he 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 he 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 June 6, 2010, the alleged onset date. [AR at 11.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
[S]ymptomatic post open reduction internal fixation (ORIF) left acetabulum and hemipelvis; left foot drop; per[o]neal nerve injury; greater trochanteric bursitis of the left hip; [and] left spine degenerative disc disease.
[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 Listing. [AR at 12.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as follows:
Specifically, the claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, but no longer than 30 minutes at any one time; he can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday but not more than 30 minutes at a time; the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; the claimant is limited to occasional bending, stooping, kneeling, crawling or crouching; the claimant should avoid even moderate exposure to vibration or hazardous conditions.
[Id.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable of performing his past relevant work as a property manager as generally performed. [AR at 16, 44-45.] The ALJ made the alternative finding at step five that based on plaintiff's RFC, vocational factors (including transferable skills acquired in plaintiff's past relevant work), and the VE's testimony, there are sedentary jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, including work as a "Billing Clerk" (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 214.362-042), "Order Clerk" (DOT No. 249.362-026), "Appointment Clerk" (DOT No. 237.367-020), and Data Entry (DOT No. 203.582-054.) [AR at 17-18, 47.] The ALJ also found, based on the testimony of the VE, that plaintiff can perform the light occupations of "Mail Clerk" (DOT No. 209.687-026), "Housekeeping" (DOT No. 323.687-014), and "Cafeteria Attendant" (DOT No. 311.677-010). [AR at 18, 45-46.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of June 6, 2010, through January 28, 2013, the date of the decision. [AR at 19.]
THE ALJ'S DECISION
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when she: (1) found that plaintiff did not meet or equal Listings 1.02, 1.03, or 1.04; and (2) gave the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician, Cynthia Soto, ...