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Hernandez v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 18, 2015

MARIA HERNANDEZ as heir and representative of the estate of ROBERTO HERNANDEZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


GARY S. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.


Maria Hernandez, as heir and representative of the estate of Roberto Hernandez, seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying Mr. Hernandez's application for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.[1] The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.[2]


Plaintiff was 47 years old at the time of his death in 2011. AR 138. He was able to speak English and Spanish, but appears to have had limited proficiency in reading and writing English. AR 182, 205, 444. He was enrolled in school up until the 7th grade, when he was suspended and did not return to complete his studies. AR 188, 446. Plaintiff worked at various jobs between 2004 and 2009, including, among other things, as a laborer and as a mechanic. AR 184. Plaintiff lived with his wife and four children, three of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of his death. AR 139.

Plaintiff's alleged physical conditions included diabetes with neuropathy, hepatitis C, and a laceration of his left hand. AR 183. He also allegedly suffered from depression. AR 445. He took a number of medications to manage his symptoms, including codeine, gabapentin, Humalog (insulin), hydrocodone, Lantus (insulin), lisinopril, metformin, and Bactrim. AR 187.

On August 14, 2009, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance and SSI benefits under Titles II and XVI. AR 138-148. These applications were denied initially on October 26, 2009 and on reconsideration on October 28, 2010. AR 62-66, 70-74. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on November 29, 2010. AR 77-78. The hearing was then conducted before Administrative Law Judge John Heyer (the "ALJ") on March 26, 2012. AR 13. On April 16, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 10-22. Plaintiff filed an appeal of this decision with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied the appeal, rendering the order the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 3-5.


To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must establish that he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

... his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To achieve uniformity in the decision-making process, the Commissioner has established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f). The ALJ proceeds through the steps and stops upon reaching a dispositive finding that the claimant is or is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion testimony. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529, 416.927, 416.929.

Specifically, the ALJ is required to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant had medically-determinable "severe" impairments;[4] (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work;[5] and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f).

Using the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 10-22. In particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 5, 2009, the date specified in his application. AR 15. Further, the ALJ identified diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, hepatitis C, laceration of the left hand, and depression as medically determinable impairments. AR 15. Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that the severity of Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or exceed any of the listed impairments. AR 15.

Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that he could perform only simple grasping motions with his non-dominant left hand and was able to perform simple repetitive tasks. AR 17. Although Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work, he could perform other work that exists in national economy. AR 20.


Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether: (1) it is supported by substantial evidence; and (2) it applies the correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. ...

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