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Slotnick v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Francisco Division

May 13, 2015



RICHARD SEEBORG, District Judge.


Plaintiff Sheryl Slotnick appeals, through a motion for summary judgment, a decision of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying Slotnick's application for disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("SSA"). According to Slotnick, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") assigned to her case committed a litany of errors in evaluating her application. She seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and a determination that she is entitled to benefits. While the ALJ indeed committed a number of errors, further administrative proceedings must be held before it can be determined whether the errors were harmless or whether Slotnick is instead entitled to a finding that she is disabled under the SSA. For the reasons and on the terms discussed below, this case will be remanded to the Commissioner.


In May of 2007, Slotnick was diagnosed with lumbar degenerative spine disease and chronic back pain by Dr. William Baumgartl, a treating pain specialist. (AR 540-541). A February 2008 CT scan revealed moderate diffuse spondylotic changes of the spine. (AR 312). In April of that year, Lawrence Dickinson, an orthopedic surgeon, performed surgery on Slotnick's L5 nerve root. (AR 302-303). The surgery resulted in "no improvement" and she continued to seek treatment from Dr. Baumgartl. (AR 429, 533-555, 590). Hoping to alleviate her pain, Slotnick received Botox and steroid injections and tried various medications. (AR 254, 540-41). Apart from narcotic pain medication, which offered some relief but produced unpleasant side effects, none of the treatments yielded sustained benefits. (AR 86).

Slotnick filed for SSA Title II disability benefits[2] on November 5, 2009. (AR 163-164). At an October 26, 2011 hearing held before an ALJ, Slotnick testified in support of her application. (AR 69-98). She submitted a variety of documentary evidence, including affidavits prepared by her husband and sister. (AR 242-45). Slotnick also submitted a Medical Source Statement ("MSS") prepared by Dr. Baumgartl, along with voluminous treatment notes documenting her lengthy medical history. (AR 253-650).

At the request of the government, Slotnick was examined by Dr. Calvin Pon, who submitted an orthopedic and residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment. (AR 356-58). Relying on Dr. Pon's findings, Dr. Linda Pancho prepared a concurring RFC assessment. (AR 359-364). Based on that RFC, a vocational expert testified at the hearing that despite her impairments, Slotnick was capable of employment in the national economy as a mail sorter, courier, parking lot attendant, assembler, addresser, and check weigher. (AR 92-93). The VE testified, however, that Slotnick would be "unemployable" if a more restricted RFC provided by Dr. Baumgartl were credited. (AR 96).

On December 1, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision. (AR 52-62). Evaluating Slotnick's application pursuant to the five-step, sequential process mandated by the SSA regulations, the ALJ considered: (1) whether Slotnick was ineligible for benefits because she was engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether Slotnick was ineligible because she did not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether Slotnick's impairment met or equaled an impairment listed in the SSA regulations; (4) whether the impairment prevented Slotnick from performing past relevant work; and, if so, (5) whether Slotnick was nonetheless capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

Following this five-step inquiry, the ALJ first determined that Slotnick had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since filing her application for benefits. (AR 54). Proceeding to step two, the ALJ found that Slotnick suffered from severe impairments including degenerative disc disease, lumbar facet disease, and chronic pain disorder. (AR 54). At step three, however, the ALJ ruled that Slotnick's ailments were not equivalent to any of the impairments listed in the applicable SSA regulations. (AR 55). Next, crediting the opinions of Dr. Pon and Dr. Pancho and giving "no weight" to Dr. Baumgartl's opinion, the ALJ determined that Slotnick had the capacity to perform some light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and § 416.967(b). (AR 55). Specifically, the ALJ found that Slotnick was capable of lifting or carrying ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally, could sit, stand or walk for six hours of an eight hour workday, and had the ability to climb, stoop, crouch, squat and crawl occasionally and frequently climb stairs. (AR 55). Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Slotnick could perform past relevant work as a grocery checker and was also capable of performing the requirements of a number of other jobs existing in the national economy. (AR 60-61). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Slotnick was not disabled. (AR 61).

The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Slotnick's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (AR 1-6). Soon after, Slotnick filed a complaint in this court. In her motion for summary judgment, Slotnick seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and a finding that she is disabled under the SSA.


Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits under the SSA. An ALJ's decision to that effect must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 388 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance-it is such reasonable evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995) (per curiam). In determining whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court must examine the administrative record as a whole, considering all the facts. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). If the evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1258.

If the ALJ's decision is not based on substantial evidence or contains legal error, the reviewing court may remand for further evidence, or enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "If additional proceedings can remedy defects in the original administrative proceedings, a social security case should be remanded." ...

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