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Byrne v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

May 4, 2015

BRIAN BYRNE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT Re: Dkt. No. 12

JOSEPH C. SPERO, Chief Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Brian Byrne challenges the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for disability benefits, claiming that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") improperly rejected the treating physician's opinion that Byrne can stand only up to three hours. Byrne has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment requesting this Court to reverse the decision and remand the case for additional proceedings, and the Commissioner has filed an Opposition requesting this Court to affirm the decision. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.[1]

II. BACKGROUND

Brian Byrne is in his mid-forties and suffers from degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and a rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder. AR at 22, 26. In addition, Byrne was diagnosed with hepatitis C, pancreatitis, depression, and Axis I history of polysubstance abuse and dependence. AR at 22-24. Byrne also reports that he experiences pain and cramping in his feet, chronic knee pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. AR at 22-23. He has a high school education and once worked as a carpet installer, carpet cleaner, construction worker, and taxi driver. AR at 79-80.

A. Procedural History

In November 2010, Byrne filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits, alleging disability since December 31, 2009. AR 162-67. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 89-93, 100-04. Byrne then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. At the hearing in March 2012, Byrne was represented by counsel, and testimony was provided by Byrne and a vocational expert. AR at 42-86. In May 2012, the ALJ issued a decision that Byrne was not disabled, finding that though Byrne had physical impairments preventing him from performing his past relevant work, they did not prevent him from performing other jobs in the economy. AR at 17-31. In August 2013, Byrne's request for Appeals Council review was denied. AR at 1-4. Byrne then brought this civil action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. His argument focuses on the narrow question whether the ALJ had legally adequate reasons for rejecting the treating physician's opinion that Byrne can only stand up to three hours. Mot. at 4.

B. ALJ's Findings

In determining disability, the ALJ is required to follow a sequential five-part evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At Step One, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I). If she is, the ALJ finds that the claimant is not disabled, and the evaluation stops.

If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the ALJ proceeds to Step Two and considers whether the claimant has "a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, " or combination of such impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. An impairment is severe if it "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, disability benefits are denied at this step.

If it is determined that one or more impairments are severe, the ALJ will perform Step Three of the analysis, comparing the medical severity of the claimant's impairments to a list of impairments that the Commissioner has found to be disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If one or a combination of the claimant's impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant is found to be disabled.

Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to Step Four and considers the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and whether she can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, she is found not to be disabled.

If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant, in light of her impairments, age, education, and work experience, can perform other jobs in the national economy. Johnson v. Chater, 108 F.3d 178, 180 (9th Cir. 1997). A claimant who is able to perform other jobs that are available in significant numbers in the national economy is not considered disabled and will not receive disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Conversely, where there are no jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, the claimant is found to be disabled. Id .

Here, the ALJ found in Step One that Byrne was not engaged in substantial gainful activity. AR at 22. In Step Two, the ALJ found that Byrne had a combination of severe physical impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine and a rotator cuff tear in the right shoulder. Id . The ALJ found that the rest of Byrne's ailments - hepatitis C, pancreatitis, depression and other mental impairments, feet and knee pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome - were not severe, and that his history of polysubstance abuse was not material to the ...


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