United States District Court, N.D. California, Eureka Division
ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT Re: Dkt.
Nos. 16, 17
J. Vadas United States Magistrate Judge
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.
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.
OF RELEVANT EVIDENCE
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
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.
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.
FIVE STEP SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS FOR DETERMINING
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).
the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s application for benefits
under the required five-step sequential evaluation.
See AR. 79-92.
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.
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 ...