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Benjamin v. Colvin

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

August 1, 2016

CASHELLA I. BENJAMIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT DOCS. 21, 24.

          NANDOR J. VADAS United States Magistrate Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Cashella I. Benjamin seeks judicial review of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) decision denying her application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff’s request for review of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ’s") unfavorable decision was granted by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council made new findings and then issued its decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The decision 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. 10 & 13.) The court therefore may decide the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the court will deny Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and will grant Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         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).

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), on September 7, 2011. (AR 314-22.) The agency denied Plaintiff’s application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 112-53.) Plaintiff, accompanied by her attorney, testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 57-93.) On November 12, 2013, the ALJ issued a hearing decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 40-50.) On March 20, 2015, the Appeals Council notified Plaintiff that it granted her request for review. (AR 12.) On April 15, 2015, Plaintiff requested an additional 30 days to submit evidence. (AR 18.) The Appeals Council issued its final decision on April 20, 2015. (AR 12-15.) The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ’s findings at Step 1 through Step 3, the RFC finding and the credibility determination. (AR 12-13.) The Appeals Council made new findings at Step 4, and ultimately found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 13-15.) On April 30, 2015, the Appeals Council sent Plaintiff’s counsel a letter through facsimile machine stating that Plaintiff could send new information within 25 days. (AR 2.) Plaintiff's counsel appears to have faxed the Appeals Council documents on June 3, 2015. (AR 860-68.)

         THE FIVE STEP SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS FOR DETERMINING DISABILITY

         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, both the ALJ and the Appeals Council evaluated Plaintiff's application for benefits under the required five-step sequential evaluation. (AR 12-14; 40-50.)

         At Step One, the claimant bears the burden of showing she 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 her alleged onset date. (AR. 42.) The Appeals Council adopted that finding. (AR 12.)

         At Step Two, the claimant bears the burden of showing that she 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: status post carpal tunnel release of the left nondominant upper extremity; cutaneous lupus; and obesity. (AR. 42.) The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's finding. (AR. 12.)

         At Step Three, the ALJ compares the claimant's impairments to the impairments listed in appendix 1 to subpart P of part 404. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d). The claimant bears the burden of showing her impairments meet or equal an impairment in the listing. Id. If the claimant is successful, a disability is presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant is unsuccessful, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and proceeds to Step Four. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (e). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. (AR 45.) The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's finding. (AR 12). Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she can stand and/or walk for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; sit without limitation; can lift and/or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; frequently climb ramps/stairs and balance; occasionally stoop, kneel crouch, and crawl; can frequently reach, handle and finger; can occasionally feel with the left non-dominant upper extremity; and must avoid working around heights and heavy machinery.” (AR 45.) The Appeals Council adopted this finding. (AR 14.)

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work. (AR 49.) The Appeals Council, however, rejected this determination and found that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. (AR 14.)

         At Step Five, after considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the Appeal Council determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (AR 15.) Accordingly, the Appeals Council found that Plaintiff had “not been under a disability, ...


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