United States District Court, C.D. California
JANINE R. JONES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ALKA SAGAR, Magistrate Judge.
On July 19, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Complaint, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), alleging that the Social Security Administration erred in denying her disability benefits. (Docket Entry No. 3.) On October 18, 2013, Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint and the Certified Administrative Record ("A.R."). (Docket Entry No. 22.) The parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. (Docket Entry Nos. 14, 15.) On November 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Brief in support of her Complaint ("Pl.'s Br."). (Docket Entry No. 24.) On December 2, 2013, Defendant filed a Brief in support of its Answer ("Def.'s Br."). On December 7, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Notice of Non-Opposition, stating that she did not intend to file a reply to Defendant's Brief. The Court has taken the action under submission without oral argument. See C.D. Local R. 7-15; "Order re Procedures in Social Security Case."
THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
"Social Security disability benefits claimants have the burden of proving disability." Bellamy v. Sec'y Health & Human Serv., 755 F.3d 1380, 1380 (9th Cir. 1985). A claimant is disabled if he has the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") follows a five-step process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). "The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four." Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007).
At step one, the ALJ must determine whether or not the claimant is actually engaged in any "substantial gainful activity, " as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If claimant is not so engaged, the evaluation continues to step two. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).
At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimed physical or mental impairments are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). When determining severity, "the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's impairments on [his or] her ability to function, without regard to whether each alone was sufficiently severe." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(2)(B)). Impairments are considered severe unless the evidence "establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.'" Id. at 1290 (quoting Yuckert v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988)). "[I]f the ALJ concludes that the claimant does have a medically severe impairment, the ALJ proceeds to the next step in the sequence." Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005); See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii).
At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's severe impairments are disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The claimant is considered disabled if his purported conditions meet or are medically equivalent to a listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). "[An] impairment is medically equivalent to a listed impairment in appendix 1 if it is at least equal in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment." 20 C.F.R. 404.1526. "Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings" rather than "[a] generalized assertion" or opinion testimony regarding "functional problems." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526).
If the ALJ concludes that the claimant is not disabled at step three, the ALJ moves to step four and considers whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work. Burch, 400 F.3d at 679; See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). In order to do so, the ALJ determines claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). A claimant's RFC is "what [claimant] can still do despite [claimant's] limitations, " and is "based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. 416.945(a)(1). If the claimant's RFC dictates that he can return to his past relevant work, he is not considered disabled. Burch, 400 F.3d at 679.
If the claimant proves in step four that he cannot return to his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). At step five "the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show that the claimant can do other kinds of work." Embrey v. Bowden, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988). At this point, ALJs "can call upon a vocational expert to testify as to: (1) what jobs the claimant, given his or her [RFC], would be able to do; and (2) the availability of such jobs in the national economy." Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1101. If the claimant does not have the RFC to work in any available jobs, he is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
Plaintiff Janine R. Jones ("Plaintiff"), a former hairdresser, asserts disability beginning June 19, 2008, based on the following alleged physical and mental impairments: anxiety and pain in both arms. (A.R. 147.) The ALJ examined the record and heard testimony from Plaintiff at the hearing on January 31, 2012. (A.R. 45-47.) Plaintiff testified that she suffers from pain in her left back, neck, shoulders, left arm, and left knee. (A.R. 45-47.)
The ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled. (A.R. 12-13.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not engaged in any "substantially gainful activity." (A.R. 13.)
At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following medically determinable impairments: obesity and degenerative joint disease of the cervical spine with neuropathy. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of depression and anxiety were nonsevere because they did not cause more than minimal limitations in her ability to perform basic work activities. (A.R. 14.)
At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or equal a medical listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (A.R. 14.)
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:
occasionally climb ramps/stairs, stoop, kneel, balance, crouch, and crawl; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequent handling and fingering; avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous heights and dangerous machinery; frequent overhead reaching and reaching in front; able to understand, remember, and carry out detailed tasks; no limitation interacting with the public, coworkers, and supervisors; avoid concentrated exposure to cold and heat; frequent near and far visual acuity; and frequent accommodation visually.
(A.R. 15.) The ALJ based the RFC finding in part on the opinion of medical expert Samuel Landau, M.D. ("Dr. Landau"), who reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and testified at the hearing as a medical expert. (A.R. 23.) Dr. Landau opined that Plaintiff was morbidly obese, had degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the neck, possible carpal tunnel syndrome in the upper extremities, and peripheral neuropathy. (A.R. 33.) Dr. Landau noted that the medical records did not prove carpal tunnel, but it was a possible diagnosis. (A.R. 33.) Additionally, Dr. Landau found that although Plaintiff tested positive for an antinuclear antibody test (ANA), she did not fulfill the criteria for a lupus diagnosis. (A.R. 34.)
Upon review of the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. (A.R. 15.) However, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff's statements "concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms" were not credible. (A.R. 15.)
At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a cosmetologist. (A.R. 18.) The ALJ made this determination after comparing Plaintiff's RFC with the requirements of her past relevant ...