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Keohanam v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 16, 2016



          KANDIS A. WESTMORE United States Magistrate Judge.

         Thongsa Keohanam ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant"). Pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Having considered the papers filed by the parties and the administrative record, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS Defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 12, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Administrative Record ("AR") at 82, 191-197.) In the application, Plaintiff alleged that he became disabled on February 18, 2011, due to high blood pressure, hepatitis C, cirrhosis, heart problems, liver problems, and depression. (Id. at 83, 191.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 82, 104.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 132-33.) The assigned ALJ held a hearing on August 29, 2013. (Id. at 52-81.) At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he worked as an eligibility technician from 1981 to 2011, processing applications for public benefits programs. (Id. at 64.) He testified that he stopped working in February 2011, and his doctor referred him to a chemical dependency program. (Id. at 65.) Plaintiff testified that he tried to return to work briefly for a month or two, but he experienced pain in his stomach, severe headaches, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. (Id. at 60-61.) Plaintiff also complained of chest pain and low back pain. (Id. at 73.) Plaintiff stated that he was sick very often and that he suffered side effects from the medications for his alcohol dependence, sleeping problems, depression, and pain. (Id. at 68, 69, 74.) Plaintiff also testified that his hepatitis C and cirrhosis were severe and that he stopped drinking in August 2011. (Id. at 72.) According to Plaintiff, his doctor only allowed him to return to work for 20 hours per week. (Id.)

         On September 16, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR at 40-47.) In reaching his decision, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential process that governs Social Security disability determinations.[1] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a); 416.920(a). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff, who met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017, had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from February 18, 2011 to June 24, 2012. (AR at 42.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff had attempted to return to work in June or August 2011 but was unable to continue due to stomach pain, severe headaches, trouble sleeping, and inability to concentrate.[2] (Id.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: hepatitis C, cirrhosis of the liver, and alcohol dependence. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. (Id. at 44.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work from February 18, 2011 through June 24, 2012. (Id. at 47.) Based on this RFC assessment, the ALJ determined, at step four, that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as an eligibility technician. (Id.) The ALJ, therefore, concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from February 18, 2011 through June 24, 2012. (Id.)

         Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable decision. (Id. at 33.) On December 5, 2014, the Appeals Council granted the request for review in part, i.e., as to the period beyond June 24, 2012. (Id. at 1-10.) The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings for the period of February 18, 2011 through June 24, 2012. (Id. at 7.) The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         On February 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed his complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) He filed his motion for summary judgment on August 10, 2015. (Pl.'s Mot., Dkt. No. 20.) The Commissioner filed her cross-motion and opposition on October 7, 2015. (Def.'s Opp'n, Dkt. No. 24.) Plaintiff filed his reply on October 21, 2015. (Pl.'s Reply, Dkt. No. 25.)


         A court may reverse the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits only when the decision is 1) based on legal error or 2) not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance." Id. at 1098. It is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the court must consider the evidence as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports, and the evidence that undermines, the Commissioner's decision. Id. "Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the [Commissioner's] decision should be upheld." Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). The court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner's decision "simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence." Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted). Furthermore, the court's review is limited to the reasons the ALJ provided in the disability determination. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (The court "may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.").

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff moves for summary judgment, seeking remand for immediate payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Pl.'s Mot. at 1.) He argues that reversal is warranted because the ALJ erred in failing to properly consider the evidence regarding his fatigue, difficulties with concentration, and his doctor's recommendation of part-time work. (Id. at 5-8.) Plaintiff specifically challenges the ALJ's finding that his fatigue was intermittent, and he argues that even an intermittent impairment precludes substantial gainful activity. (Id. at 6.)

         In her opposition, the Commissioner argues (1) that Dr. Fong's opinion "did not constitute a medical opinion entitled to special consideration in the first place because it did not contain an assessment of Plaintiff's functional limitations, " and thus, the ALJ was not required to offer specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting it, (2) that even if the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Fong's opinion, Plaintiff has not shown that the error was not harmless, and (3) that even if the ALJ had erred, the error was harmless. (Def.'s Opp'n at 3-6.) The Commissioner also argues that to the extent Plaintiff challenges ...

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