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Garza v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division

March 20, 2015

STEVE GARZA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.

I.

PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff, in pro se, filed this action on June 13, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on July 9, 2014, and July 16, 2014. On February 2, 2015, plaintiff filed his Motion for Summary Judgment ("MSJ"). On March 5, 2015, defendant filed her Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment ("Cross-MSJ"). As of the date of this Memorandum Opinion and Order, plaintiff has not filed an opposition to the Cross-MSJ. The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

II.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on August 1, 1961. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 106.] He has past relevant work experience as an account representative and an insurance agent. [AR at 23, 44.]

On June 8, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, alleging that he has been unable to work since June 3, 2010. [AR at 15, 106-09.] After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 15, 73.] A hearing was held on November 16, 2012, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on his own behalf. [AR at 31-46.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 43-46.] On January 9, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from June 3, 2010, the alleged onset date, through January 9, 2013, the date of the decision. [AR at 15-24.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 10.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 18, 2014 [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.

III.

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).

IV.

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 3, 2010, the alleged onset date.[1] [AR at 18.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of back disorder, right knee pain, and obesity. [Id.] He also determined that plaintiff has the non-severe impairments of mental depression and substance abuse in remission. [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. [AR at 21.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[2] to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), [3] and can lift and carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and walk up to six hours in an eight-hour day; and sit up to six hours in an eight-hour day. [Id.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as an account representative (a sedentary-level occupation), and as an insurance agent (a light-level occupation), as actually and generally performed. [AR at 23.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of June 3, 2010, through January 9, 2013, the date of the decision. [AR at 24.]

V.

THE ALJ'S DECISION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) accorded more weight to the non-treating medical examiner than to the opinions of plaintiff's treating sources; (2) discounted plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; (3) found no severe mental health impairment; (4) failed to consider the side effects from plaintiff's prescription medications; and (5) failed to pose an accurate, complete hypothetical to the VE. [MSJ at 2.] Defendant contends that the ALJ properly resolved these issues. [Cross-MSJ at 2-10.]

As set forth below, the Court agrees with plaintiff, in part, agrees with defendant, in part, and remands for further proceedings.

A. TREATING PHYSICIAN

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he gave more weight to the consulting medical examiner Homayoun Saeid, M.D., than to plaintiff's treating physicians, Arnold Yuan, M.D., and David R. Johnson, M.D. [MSJ at 6-8.] He states that Dr. Saeid, who conducted his examination of plaintiff on January 16, 2012, did not review any of the existing medical records and, subsequent to his examination, another 200 pages of medical records were added to the file. [MSJ at 6.] He also contends that the ALJ "failed to even acknowledge or address the existence of Dr. Yuan's opinion, " and also "failed to provide any reasons whatsoever for his rejection of the opinion of Dr. Johnson, who opined that [plaintiff] would be unable to return to work because of his limited ability to sit, stand, or walk." [MSJ at 7 (citations omitted).] Finally, he argues that the ALJ's ...


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