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Arredondo v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 18, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Diana Arredondo (“Plaintiff”) challenges the Commissioner’s denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and the action is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         On July 24, 2012, Plaintiff applied for DIB alleging disability beginning September 27, 2011. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 150-56). Her application was denied initially on December 17, 2012, and upon reconsideration on June 21, 2013. (AR 54-78.) On July 22, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing, and a hearing was held on February 11, 2014. (AR 32-53, 100-01.) Represented by counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified, along with an impartial medical expert and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). (AR 35-52.) On April 10, 2014, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, pursuant to the Social Security Act, [1] since September 27, 2011. (AR 16.) The ALJ’s decision became the Commissioner’s final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (AR 1-4.) Plaintiff filed this action on September 20, 2015. (Dkt. No. 1.)

         The ALJ followed a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 27, 2011, the alleged onset date (“AOD”). (AR 12.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; type II diabetes; and obesity. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform a wide range of light work . . ., except the claimant is limited to lifting-carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; is limited to sitting six hours and standing-walking six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; must be allowed to change position at the work station for one to three minutes every hour; and is limited to climbing ramps and stairs, bending, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling occasionally, but can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolding; and must avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and dangerous or fast moving machines.

(AR 13.)

         At step four, based on Plaintiff’s RFC and the VE’s testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work in medical billing and collections. (AR 16.) Accordingly, the ALJ did not proceed to step five, and instead, found that Plaintiff has not been under a disability from the AOD through the date of the ALJ’s decision. (Id.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits. A court must affirm an ALJ’s findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence, and if the proper legal standards were applied. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). “‘Substantial evidence’ means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). An ALJ can satisfy the substantial evidence requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

         “[T]he Commissioner’s decision cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Rather, a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the Secretary’s conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “‘Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ’ the ALJ’s decision should be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)); see also Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (“If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ’s conclusion, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ.”). The Court may review only “the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) failed to properly consider the opinion of treating physician Harry L. Gibson, M.D.; (2) failed to make proper credibility findings; and (3) failed to properly assess her RFC. (Joint Stipulation for Social Security (“Joint Stip.”) at 3-5, 7-14, 18-20, Dkt. No. 23.) The Commissioner contends that: (1) any error in not addressing Dr. Gibson’s opinion was harmless; (2) the ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff’s credibility; and (3) even if the RFC included the limitations assessed by Dr. Gibson, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work. (Joint Stip. at 5-7, 14-18, 20-21.)

         A. The ALJ Erred In Not Considering Dr. Gibson’s Opinion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “completely ignore[d]” Dr. Gibson’s opinion that she could not lift over five pounds and that she requires a walker as an assistive device, and that the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence for rejecting Dr. Gibson’s opinion. (Joint Stip. at 3-5.) The Commissioner argues that any error in not addressing Dr. Gibson’s opinion was harmless. (Id. at 5-7.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees with Plaintiff.

         1. Dr. ...

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