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Proctor v. Colvin

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

April 29, 2015

MICHELLE PROCTOR, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.

I.

PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed this action on September 29, 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 March 13, 2015, and March 18, 2015.[1] On February 11, 2015, plaintiff filed a Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Relief Requested in Plaintiff's Complaint ("Plaintiff's Brief" or "PB"), addressing the disputed issues in the case. On March 6, 2015, the Commissioner filed Defendant's Brief in Opposition to Complaint ("Opposition" or "Opp'n"). On March 11, 2015, plaintiff filed a Reply Memorandum ("Reply"). The Court has taken these submissions under submission without oral argument.

II.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on September 28, 1969. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 26, 103.[2] She has no past relevant work experience. [AR at 26.]

On June 1, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for SSI payments, alleging that she has been unable to work since December 24, 2005. [AR at 131, 251.] She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to June 1, 2009, the date the application was filed. [AR at 18, 131.] 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 131, 163-64.] A hearing was held on August 22, 2011, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 100-25.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 116-24.] On September 9, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from June 1, 2009, the date the application was filed. [AR at 131-39.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 187.]

On January 3, 2013, the Appeals Council granted the request for review "under the error law provision" of the regulations, vacated the September 9, 2011, decision, and remanded the case to an ALJ to address the third-party function report of Tyasha Johnson and to consider indications of excessive body weight. [AR at 144-45.] In addition, the Appeals Council ordered the ALJ on remand to: (1) "[e]valuate the treating and nontreating source opinions..., nonexamining source opinions..., and other source opinions..., and explain the weight given to such opinion evidence"; (2) "consider the indications of excessive body weight"; (3) "[g]ive further consideration to [plaintiff]'s maximum residual functional capacity and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations"; and (4) "[o]btain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on [plaintiff]'s occupational base." [Id.] The Appeals Council further ordered the ALJ to "offer [plaintiff] an opportunity for a hearing, [and] take any further action needed to complete the administrative record and issue a decision." [AR at 145.]

On March 4, 2013, a second hearing was held before the same ALJ, at which time plaintiff did not appear. [AR at 95-99.] Plaintiff's attorney represented at the hearing that plaintiff "was arrested and in jail at the moment, " and requested that the hearing be rescheduled. [AR at 97.] The ALJ rescheduled the hearing. [AR at 99.]

On April 15, 2013, a third hearing was held before the same ALJ, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 68-94.] In addition, a third party witness and a different VE testified. [AR at 82-92.] On April 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from June 1, 2009, the application filing date. [AR at 18-27.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on July 30, 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 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 1, 2009, the application filing date. [AR at 20.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: "[m]ood disorder NOS [not otherwise specified]; anxiety disorder NOS; panic disorder with agoraphobia; and morbid obesity." [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 22.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[3] to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), [4] "reduced since the prior decision due to obesity, " that requires "only simple repetitive tasks, no greater than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public; and... no rapid paced high production quota." [AR at 23.] At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has no past relevant work. [AR at 26.] 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 a "laundry worker" (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 361.685-018), and "warehouse worker" (DOT No. 922.687-058). [AR at 27, 87-90.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time since the application filing date. [AR at 27.]

V.

THE ALJ'S DECISION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when she: (1) rejected the opinion of plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Vida Parsa, M.D.; (2) determined plaintiff's mental RFC; (3) addressed the third party evidence from Tyasha Johnson; and (4) rejected plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. [PB at 1, 6, 8-9.]

As set forth below, the Court agrees with plaintiff and remands for ...


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