United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed this action on June 19, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on July 9, 2014. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on March 13, 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 October 14, 1964. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 430, 763.] She has past relevant work experience as a hairstylist. [AR at 763, 842-43.]
On June 25, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for SSI payments, alleging that she has been unable to work since June 1, 2007. [AR at 9, 430, 756.] After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 9, 59.] A hearing was held on May 6, 2009, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 334-58.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 350-57.] On July 31, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability since June 25, 2007, the date the application was filed. [AR at 9-16.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 4.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff commenced an action in this Court in case number ED CV 09-1968-PLA. On August 27, 2010, the Court remanded the matter for further proceedings [AR at 242-54], and on October 23, 2010, the Appeals Council issued its remand instructions and, consistent with the Court's order, the matter was remanded for the ALJ to consider whether plaintiff's impairments met or equaled section 1.02A of the listing of impairments ("Listing"), to further develop the medical record, and to reconsider plaintiff's credibility. [AR at 393-96.] A hearing was held on March 30, 2011, before a different ALJ, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 294-329.] The same VE who testified at the 2009 hearing also testified. [AR at 325-28.] On July 29, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability since June 25, 2007, the date the application was filed. [AR at 217-24.] The Appeals Council denied review of the case and plaintiff commenced another action in this Court (case number ED CV 11-1612-PLA), which the Court remanded pursuant to the parties' stipulation for voluntary remand on May 1, 2012. [AR at 782-83.]
On June 20, 2012, the Appeals Council issued its remand instructions to the ALJ. [AR at 772-76.] The remand instructions required the ALJ to update the treatment evidence, order a new psychological consultative examination,  and expressly evaluate the medical source opinions of Payam Moazzaz, M.D., and the State agency physicians, G. Taylor-Holmes, M.D., and K. Gregg, M.D.; reassess plaintiff's credibility; reconsider plaintiff's RFC on the updated records; further consider whether plaintiff can perform her past relevant work; and secure supplemental evidence from a VE if appropriate. [AR at 772-76.] On October 2, 2012, a hearing was held, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 825-46.] A VE also testified. [AR at 842-46.] On October 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision again concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability since June 25, 2007, the date the application was filed. [AR at 756-64.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 25, 2014 [AR at 741-43], 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 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).
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 her 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 her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that she 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 she 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 25, 2007, the application date. [AR at 758.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease involving the lumbar spine; degenerative joint disease involving the bilateral knees; asthma; obesity; and a bipolar disorder. [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. [Id.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b),  as follows:
[C]an stand and or walk no more than four hours during an eight hour day and can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but not ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl but is unable to work around unprotected heights. She should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gasses and poor ventilation. Mentally, the claimant can understand, remember and carry out simple job instructions and maintain attention and concentration sufficient to perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks. The claimant can have occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors and the general public and can work in an environment with occasional changes to the work setting and occasional work related decision-making.
[AR at 760.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as a hairstylist. [AR at 763, 842-43.] At step five, based on plaintiff's RFC, vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, including work as an "electronics worker" (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 726.687-010), "packing machine operator" (DOT No. 920.685-082), and "mail clerk" (DOT No. 209.687-026). [AR at 764, 842-46.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time since June 25, 2007, the date the application was filed. [AR at 764.]
THE ALJ'S ...