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Pfohl v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, Eureka Division

July 19, 2016

KURT LEE PFOHL, Plaintiff,


          Nandor J. Vadas United States Magistrate Judge


         Plaintiff, Kurt Lee Pfohl, seeks judicial review of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) decision denying Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff’s first request for review of the ALJ’s unfavorable decision was granted by the Appeals Council and remanded back to the ALJ for a new hearing and new decision. On remand the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. Review of that decision was denied by the Appeals Counsel. The decision thus is the “final decision” of the Commissioner of Social Security, which this court may review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Both parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge. (Docs. 5 & 10). The court therefore may decide the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the court will grant Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and will deny Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.


         The Commissioner’s findings “as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A district court has a limited scope of review and can only set aside a denial of benefits if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Flaten v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is “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.” Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 979 (9th Cir. 1997). “In determining whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, ” a district court must review the administrative record as a whole, considering “both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The Commissioner’s conclusion is upheld where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).


         In 2009 Plaintiff’s mental health treatment included medication, counseling, and inpatient hospitalization. On June 30, 2009, auditory hallucinations were noted. AR. 321. On August 4, 2009, Plaintiff was admitted to the emergency department at St. Joseph Hospital (AR. 394-96) and then apparently transferred to Semper Virens Psychiatric Hospital (AR. 319).

         On March 28, 2011, the Humboldt Medical Group noted that Plaintiff suffered psychotic features and referred him to a psychiatrist. AR. 430. Dr. Robert E. Soper, M.D., the treating psychiatrist from May 6, 2011, through 2013, found Plaintiff to be “seriously depressed” with “some polysubstance dependence” and PTSD. AR. 451. On August 3, 2011, Dr. Soper wrote that a recent MRI (AR 373-74) had shown brain damage which should be considered in assessing Plaintiff cognitive impairment. AR. 456.

         Dr. Soper summarized Plaintiff’s mental status in a letter dated February 21, 2012. AR. 458-61. Symptoms of depression had included suicidal ideation, insomnia, mild psychomotor retardation, anergia, irritability, and lethargy. Id. In addition, Plaintiff had problems with occasional auditory and visual hallucinations, and the development of cognitive impairments including problems with concentration, confusion, and short-term memory. Id.


         A person filing a claim for social security disability benefits (“the claimant”) must show that she has the “inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment” which has lasted or is expected to last for twelve or more months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.909. The ALJ must consider all evidence in the claimant’s case record to determine disability (Id. § 416.920(a)(3)), and must use a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether the claimant is disabled (Id. § 416.920). “[T]he ALJ has a special duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant’s interests are considered.” Brown v. Heckler, 713 F.2d 441, 443 (9th Cir. 1983).

         Here, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s application for benefits under the required five-step sequential evaluation. See AR. 79-92.

         At Step One, the claimant bears the burden of showing he has not been engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since the alleged date the claimant became disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If the claimant has worked and the work is found to be substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2009, the alleged onset date. AR. 81.

         At Step Two, the claimant bears the burden of showing that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c). “An impairment is not severe if it is merely ‘a slight abnormality (or combination of slight abnormalities) that has no more than a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work activities.’” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting S.S.R. No. 96-3(p) (1996)). The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered the following severe impairments: an affective disorder; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and lumbar spine; right shoulder impingement and ...

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